It is now ten years since England’s 5-1 demolition of Germany in Munich. It is fair to say, that while there have been brief flashes of promise, the past decade hasn’t been England’s most memorable. Indeed, it is a damning reflection of Fabio Capello’s time in charge of the national team that England’s recent rise to 4th in the FIFA World Rankings was met with confusion, scorn and derision from all quarters.
Tonight, however, at the Vasil Levski Stadium in Bulgaria, England looked, if not like the fourth best team in the World, then at least a vastly improved version of the the team that drew 0-0 with Montenegro at Wembley in October.
England’s new-look starting XI was missing Frank Lampard, who was named as a substitute for the first time in four years. In his stead, Scott Parker and Gareth Barry ran the midfield with aplomb, the former putting out fires all over the pitch, the latter distributing the ball with the clarity of vision of which he is capable when playing at his best.
After a slightly shaky start from the visitors, it was a bit of Barry brilliance that first unlocked the Bulgaria defence. As an overwhelmed back four struggled to deal with an England corner, Barry deftly lifted the ball above their heads and onto the chest of Gary Cahill, whose perfect first touch and striker’s finish showed why Bolton were right not to bow to pressure to sell him for less than his £17million release clause over the summer.
If Cahill can produce more performances like that, though, £17million is going to look increasingly like a bargain. While many thought Man United rookie Phil Jones should have got the nod ahead of him, none can argue that he would have done any better. Cahill didn’t put a foot wrong all night. Alongside him in defence, John Terry and Ashley Cole were their usual dependable selves, while Chris Smalling had a steady enough game for a 21-year-old playing out of position.Having misjudged a couple of Bulgarian crosses however, it is conceivable that Capello will consider bringing in Micah Richards for Tuesday night’s game against Wales however.
Further up the field, England looked sharp as a tack. Downing and Walcott on the wings were at times clumsy, but such follies are forgivable given the contributions they made overall. It was Downing’s corner that provided Rooney with his first goal, and Walcott’s lightning dash into space and ball to Young that furnished him with his second just before the break. Although both were guilty of holding onto the ball a little too long at times, Capello will have no complaint of his wingers.
The same will surely be said of the front two. Samson Rooney looks a new player since his hair transplant, finding the form many thought he had lost forever on the plane to South Africa, while Ashley Young continues to amaze. He and Rooney have only played together since Man United’s pre season tour of America in July, and they already look as though they can read each other’s minds. Both Man United and England will be wide-eyed in wonder at their instant telepathy.
Bulgaria meanwhile, were poor. As their retired talisman Dimitar Berbatov stood in the stands, Bulgaria capitulated in all areas of the park. Despite a healthy share of the possession, they rarely managed a foray into England’s final third, much less trouble Joe Hart. Lacking any real fight, they were resigned to shots from range. More concerning however was their fans’ disgusting attitude towards Ashley Young. During the second half spectators were heard making monkey noises toward the England forward. The abuse would have been better reserved for their own players, who were made too look positively simian by the Man United man.
It was the only real negative on an excellent night for England. In the build up to the game, Bulgaria coach Lothar Matthaus said “My players must not run like a mouse from a cat… I want them to play like Germans.” While England didn’t recreate the magic of Munich, they were certainly the cat to Bulgaria’s mouse. The next ten years look bright for Capello’s England.
England now look ahead to tuesday’s game against Wales. As though wishing to compound Capello’s joy, Wales striker Craig Bellamy got booked in their 2-1 win over Montenegro, meaning he will be unavailable to play at Wembley. With Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale to compete with, England might not have such an easy time as they did in Sofia, although Wales, despite their win, are still bottom of the qualifying group.
Elsewhere in the European Championship Qualifiers, the top ranked team in the World, Holland, managed to put 11 goals past the joint-lowest ranked team, San Marino. France managed a 2-1 win away to Albania, a slick German side beat Austria 6-2, and Italy managed a 1-0 win in the Faroe Islands.
Tags: Ashley Young, Bulgaria, England, Euro 2012, Fabio Capello, gary cahill, Lothar Matthaus, Wayne Rooney