Only England can make a 3-0 victory look thoroughly unremarkable as they ran out comfortable but unexceptional victors against a toothless Bulgarian side who created very few chances. Three goals in the first half: a first international goal for Gary Cahill and a brace from Wayne Rooney ensured the three points for Capello’s side, who put in a professional performance if not a sensational one to end Lothar Matthäus’ unbeaten run and put themselves three points clear at the top of their qualifying group G.
England travelled to the Stadion Vasil Levski in Sofia to take on Bulgaria, a side they have never lost to, on the back of a terrific away record for Fabio Capello, who had won 9 of his last 13 away fixtures. In addition to this, last time the two teams met England ran out 4-0 victors courtesy of a Jermaine Defoe hat trick. Lothar Matthäus has since taken over as Bulgarian manager though, and has yet to lose a game in the three competitive fixtures he’s taken charge of, winning one and drawing the other two.
The Spurs striker could only cement a place on the bench though as Wayne Rooney was the only out-and-out striker in a 4-5-1 formation. He had plenty of attacking support though from a midfield that included Theo Walcott, Stuart Downing and the in-form Ashley Young who kept Frank Lampard out of the starting 11. Chris Smalling made his debut on the right side of a four man defence, a position he has made his own at Manchester United this season. A further confidence boost was the lack of recognised right backs on the England bench.
The young defender was up against it though with Martin Petrov occupying the left side of midfield for Bulgaria. Team mate Phil Jones was also on the bench, as the fears for the future of English football seemed a thing of the past.
Stiliyan Petrov became Bulgaria’s most capped player with 103 appearances for the Southeast European nation, he and namesake Martin were probably the most familiar starters to English spectators but striker Ivelin Popov was another one to watch, the one-time Blackburn target was the only scorer for Bulgaria in the group games so far. Goalkeeper Nikolay Mihaylov was technically a Liverpool player for three years but didn’t make an appearance due to problems acquiring a work permit. In 9 prior meetings, the Bulgarians have managed only two goals, compared to England’s 13.
There were concerns about the playing surface before the kick off with Rooney stating that it was ‘full of stones’. However, England, in their new dark blue strip got proceedings underway. It was Bulgaria however, who had the first effort on goal with Martin Petrov firing well over 5 minutes in.
England didn’t start confidently, making no chances in the opening 10 minutes and reverting to the slow, aimless passing game English fans have come to dread. They took the lead 12 minutes in though, Gary Cahill capitalised on a good ball from Barry, his chested touch looked to be too heavy but he managed to squeeze it underneath Mihaylov nevertheless. A first competitive England goal for the Bolton defender.
The goal gave them confidence, and a probing move ended with Wayne Rooney almost finding Ashley Cole, but the defender couldn’t quite get on the end of it.
Cahill then lost possession to gift Bulgaria their first real attack. His header was intercepted by Stiliyan Petrov whose cross field ball found Martin Petrov, but the winger shot low and wide. An early warning against complacency for Capello’s men.
It didn’t take long for England to double their lead though. Free scoring Wayne Rooney wasn’t tracked by the Bulgaria defence and got up well to head home a Stewart Downing corner. It looked like plain sailing for England after a nervy start.
Chris Smalling was performing admirably, looking a lively outlet down the right hand side but also doing his bit in defence – he did well to cut out a Petar Zanev cross. A cross from the other side left Joe Hart stranded but Smalling was again there to head the ball behind.
A good run from Ashley Young ended with England conceding a free kick, they were looking a little isolated going forward at times with Wayne Rooney the only recognised striker, and he, as always was rarely content to remain up front at all times. Overall though it was a balanced team due to the mix of defensive and attacking midfielders, Young wasn’t looking entirely convincing playing through the centre of the park though.
Martin Petrov’s long range shooting was Bulgaria’s only apparent threat, but Joe Hart had yet to be tested. A rare mistake by Chris Smalling, whose misjudged header allowed the Bulgarian winger to put in a cross, but perhaps so used to shooting, his volleyed pass was overhit. A prolonged spell of possession for the Bulgarians was ultimately fruitless as they seemed unable to penetrate a well organised England defence.
Wayne Rooney added a third on the cusp of half time. Ashley Young was released by Theo Walcott whose first real contribution was a fantastic low cross for the England striker who poked home after some terrible defending from Ivan Bandalovski who made no attempt to track Rooney. A great move by England.
Despite the convincing scoreline, England had started badly and after a good period of play, had faded to mediocre towards the end of the opening 45 minutes; they had kept Bulgaria out though and looked fairly comfortable in the process.
The half started far from emphatically, much as the opening 45 minutes had tailed off. Ivan Ivanov came close with a powered header after a fantastic leap from a crossed free kick.
Ashley Young’s unconvincing performance continued in the same vein as he was released down the right hand side with plenty of room but opted for a low cross that cannoned off the first defender.
A terrific save from Joe Hart then denied Stiliyan Petrov, who won a header at the near post from an inswinging Martin Petrov corner and directed it goalwards, it was a good height for the England ‘keeper but it still required an instant reaction.
England then came close from a header; Downing got on the end of a Walcott cross but could only hit the woodwork. Then some tenacious work from Scott Parker allowed the West Ham midfielder to get a good shot away but Mihaylov pulled off a smart save.
Rooney directed a Gareth Barry cross goalwards but couldn’t get much pace on it and it was easily held by Mihaylov.
One blemish on a good evening for England was the reports of racist chanting towards Ashley Young and Ashley Cole from the Bulgarian fans.
England were looking relaxed with very little to deal with in terms of Bulgarian attacks, the hosts were keeping possession for the majority of time but weren’t creating much and England didn’t look as though they were going to go to any great lengths to widen their lead with few chances of their own in the second half.
Theo Walcott should have made it 4 after he was put through by a fantastic ball from Wayne Rooney who was clattered in the process, Walcott bore down on goal but shot way wide of the mark from a good position.
Wayne Rooney then almost got on the end of a James Milner cross but couldn’t quite connect.
The stadium was practically silent as even the England fans found little to cheer about during a particularly barren spell of play that lasted until the final whistle.
Fabio Capello will be satisfied with a comfortable win but the players won’t need telling that the performance was hardly their best with very little in the way of creativity. Beating the likes of Bulgaria has seldom been a problem for England, winning 9 out of their 10 qualifying games in the lead up to the 2010 World Cup, but when they come up against a team of real substance, they so often come up short.
Referee: Frank De Bleeckere (Belgium)
England (4-5-1) Hart, Smalling, Cahill, Terry, Cole, Walcott (Johnson, 83), Parker, Barry (Lampard, 80), Downing, Young (Milner, 62), Rooney
Bulgaria (4-4-2) Mihaylov, Zanev, Bodurov, Milanov, Bandalovski (Sarmov, 45), Ivanov, Georgiev, Martin Petrov, Stiliyan Petrov, Popov (Marquinhos, 81), Genkov (Bozhilov, 61)
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