Euro 2012 qual. - Rooney on form as England crush Bulgaria
England barely broke a sweat in a 3-0 Euro 2012 Group G qualifying win over Bulgaria that saw Wayne Rooney score twice at the Vasil Levski Stadion in Sofia.
Gary Cahill got the ball rolling early on with a cool chest-down and finish - his first England goal - before Rooney added a towering header and a tap-in to round off a slick one-touch move on the stroke of half time.
Bulgaria occasionally had good spells of possession but England goalkeeper Joe Hart only had one real save to make while his team-mates were denied further goals by the woodwork and smart stops from Nikolay Mihaylov.
The win puts England three points clear at the top of their group with two games remaining, with Wales doing their old rivals a favour by beating Montenegro 2-1.
A home victory for England against Wales on Tuesday would put them on the brink of qualifying for next year's finals thanks to a vastly superior goal difference over the Montenegrins.
With Fabio Capello opting for a youthful 4-2-3-1 formation spearheaded by Manchester United duo Rooney and Ashley Young, the group leaders were only occasionally tested by Lothar Matthaeus’s side, the German coach’s intent to attack England backfiring spectacularly.
Frank Lampard was dropped from a competitive international for the first time in four years, with two holding midfielders employed to protect and serve the attacking quartet of Rooney, Young, Theo Walcott and Stewart Downing.
Against relatively weak opposition such a ploy is effective enough, but England will be hoping on Jack Wilshere’s return to fitness as - despite winning at a canter - they did not hold on to the ball nearly as much as would be required against the likes of Spain or the Netherlands.
There were also question marks over Chris Smalling, who looked shaky at times in his new position of right back, while Joe Hart was a touch slack with his kicking and positioning at times, not ideal when all his deputies are either injured or playing prima donna at not being first choice.
The match was won by half-time as a stuttering start was soon calmed when Cahill controlled Gareth Barry’s lofted pass on his upper body before rifling a low shot past Mihaylov as he hit the deck.
That was on 13 minutes and soon afterwards it was 2-0 as Rooney belied his lack of height with a leap that would not look out of place at the World Athletics Championships in South Korea: he was aided by an almost rugby-style lift by John Terry, and by some weak defending from the hapless Bulgarians.
England were happy to sit back and beckon the hosts who, for all their first-half possession, only vaguely threatened when Hart and Smalling lost the flight of the ball.
Any hope of a comeback was put to bed just before the break when a superb counter attack saw Walcott thread a lovely pass wide to Young, whose low drilled ball bamboozled the opposition and found Rooney alone at the far post for the easiest of conversions.
Despite Hart’s odd lapse he was able to retain enough concentration to make a great stop at point-blank range after Martin Petrov’s 54th-minute corner was flicked on first by Ivelin Popov and - from no more than a yard - again by Stiliyan Petrov.
That chance sparked England into an assault, as Downing hit the post with a looping header from Walcott’s cross on the resultant counter-attack, while Scott Parker forced a good one-handed save from Mihaylov.
It also gave the visitors a reason to retain possession better as they closed out the final half-hour with a passing masterclass that largely reduced the technically-gifted Bulgarians to spectators.
Walcott missed a sitter after Rooney played him clean through, although to be fair to one of Arsenal’s few in-form players the ball bobbled at the death.
The closing stages saw the uglier side of football in the Balkans given a cameo, as offensive racial chanting and a series of missiles came from the home fans, which England’s players and support did well to ignore, although Capello spared Young the brunt of the abuse my taking him off.
But both home and away were all smiles and handshakes at the end as England moved a step closer to the finals in Poland and Ukraine.