The scoreline flattered England but they were deserving victors as they beat a poor Bulgaria side 4-0 at Wembley Stadium. Tottenham Hotspur striker Jermain Defoe notched his first England hattrick, but Spurs fans will not be able to take much joy from the performance - they lost central defender Michael Dawson in the second half to an apparently serious knee injury before Defoe too succumbed to a knock after guiding his third goal of the match past a helpless [goalkeeper]. England supporters will take many comforts from an emphatic victory to start the qualification, with Joe Hart outstanding in goal and England's centre finally taking shape, but there will be many questions too, especially regarding Wayne Rooney's ultimate role on the team
Two years ago, Fabio Capello claimed responsibility for Rooney's spike in goals, asserting that he had instructed the young striker to take up position closer to the opposition area rather than let Rooney indulge in his habit to drop deep to support his midfielders. If Rooney learned any lessons from the World Cup qualification campaign, he seems to have forgotten them, and you wouldn't have to squint too hard to imagine him as a central midfielder rather than a true forward. In reality, he was playing somewhere in between, drifting back frequently to help win the midfield battle before bringing the wide players and 'strike partner' Defoe into play - essentially playing trequartista in a 4-4-1-1. Rooney had a hand in setting up all four goals for England, but one has to wonder whether he'd be better served just acting as a striker and letting the true midfielders create, especially against better teams than Bulgaria.
England got off to a roaring start, and were in front almost immediately thanks to a sloppy pass out of defence. Rooney latched onto the ball, played a reverse pass into Ashley Cole, who slipped behind the back line and shot at the keeper. All Mihailov could do was parry the loose ball back to Cole, who kept his cool to play a cushioned sidefoot volley straight to Jermain Defoe in the centre. Defoe had no problems with the finish, crashing the ball into the roof of the net.
Most of the early pressure came from England, who made excellent use of overlapping fullback runs in order to create space down the flanks. Theo Walcott's speed made dealing with him and Glen Johnson down the England right particularly dangerous, and Walcott opened up the defence several times only to see chances wasted. At the other end of the pitch, Phil Jagielka and Michael Dawson were doing admirably in the centre, but Johnson's habit of pushing forwards left large gaps on the right flank for Bolton man Martin Petrov to exploit. Theo Walcott may be a fine player going forwards, but the winger does not yet have a clear sense of defensive duties and regularly left Johnson - not the most defensive of players himself - exposed.
It was something of a surprise when the first Bulgaria attack of real substance was forged down their right. The whipped cross seemed rather pointless, as there were zero red shirts in the box, but Johnson did his best to rectify the situation, producing a neat sidefooted finish into the bottom right hand corner of the goal. His own goal. It took a fine reflexive save from Joe Hart to spare the right-back's blushes, but the lax play from Johnson was a sign of things to come.
Bulgaria were more lively after about the halfway point of the period, looking to play through the midfield and generally driving forward after England's inevitable errors. But for all the half chances they got, they were essentially toothless in the final third, failing to register a shot on target in the first half - and when they committed too many men forward, England could break at speed down either flank. Bulgaria's advantage in central midfield was overcome by Rooney dropping very deep when out of possession, and he and Steven Gerrard made excellent work of harrying the ball-careers, continually disrupting whatever patient play the visitors were cooking up. It didn't help that supposed midfielder Ivelin Popov was playing so high up the field.
Within five minutes of the second half, Wayne Rooney nearly scored a stunner. It was his only clear-cut chance of the match, and it came because he hadn't dropped back to mop up an incursion into the England half. Instead, he and Defoe were upfield when Gerrard finally got the ball clear, leaving the two strikers isolated against the Bulgarian centre backs. With Mihailov off his line, Rooney tried a very cheeky chip that floated agonisingly towards the net - but it hung up for too long, and the keeper was able to scramble the ball away.
For all the promise of that shot, the next ten minutes were brutal on England. Glen Johnson let Petrov drift into his zone without picking him up at least twice, and Michael Dawson went down with a bad injury shortly after making a hash out of a challenge, rolling over knee and ankle before lying in obvious pain for several minutes. Off went Dawson on a stretcher - a huge blow for Tottenham - and on came debutant Gary Cahill. The presence of no less than two members of Bolton on Wembley's pitch might have been taken by many as heralding the end of the world and the Great Ant Apocolypse, but the pitch failed to be invaded by twelve foot tall killing machines and life moved on.
More pressure was applied down the England right, and again it was Johnson at fault, with Hart nearly decapitated by a Martin Petrov effort. However, committing so many bodies forward left the Bulgarians open at the back, and Gareth Barry marshalled the ball at the edge of England's penalty area before setting Wayne Rooney free. It was a simple matter to play in Defoe, who made a cute little diagonal run to wrong-foot his marker before nutmegging the keeper with a low finish. It took less than fifteen seconds from the ball to travel the entire length of the pitch following Petrov's shot.
One might have imagined that Bulgaria would capitulate after going down by two with half an hour to play, but Hart had to be alert after Cole and Jagielka let a man slip through their lines and into a one on one with the England goalkeeper. Hart showed stunning composure, standing tall before brilliantly slapping the shot down with his right glove. He was forced into a second, less impressive stop only minutes later as Bulgaria ratcheted up the pressure.
It proved to be a false dawn, though, and England were soon further ahead. Theo Walcott, whose efficacy had dwindled in the second half, was replaced by Manchester City winger Adam Johnson. He immediately found himself in space for a shot, fed by James Milner, but curled the ball wide of the far post, much to the disgust of Rooney and Defoe. Not two minutes later, Johnson had a chance to atone for his error after being fed by Rooney, shooting at the near post from a similar position.The shot itself was pretty weak and just about trickled in, but Mihailov had been expecting another far-post effort and was helpless as the ball rolled a few feet to his left for England's third.
The goal was followed up by Defoe's third, set up again by Rooney on a quick break into Bulgaria's half. The striker received the ball at the edge of the area and let it run across him before flicking a powerful finish over the onrushing goalkeeper, being clattered by a defender for his troubles. The Spurs striker was limping heavily as he tried to celebrate, and was immediately withdrawn for Aston Villa's Ashley Young, looking to make an impression after a series of sublime performances in the league.
He never really got the chance as the game petered out over the last five minutes or so. England seemed pretty happy with the win and the scoreline - they played extremely well for most of the match - and Bulgaria realised that chasing the match would be a little bit pointless. With five minutes of stoppage time (for Dawson's injury) up, the ref blew the whistle. England's qualification campaign certainly got off on the right foot.
Many people will claim that this means that the decisions made during the World Cup are somehow vindicated, or that England are a better side without John Terry and Frank Lampard on the field. Frankly, this game was pretty weak evidence of anything. England have demonstrated repeatedly that when they play a very fast physical game they can harass their opponents into coughing up possession, and they have the quality up front to punish their opponents once they get the ball. What they haven't shown is that they have a plan when the players aren't fresh from the offseason - as far as I can tell, it was same old England, with a better goalkeeper.