Euro 2020 qualifers: Harry Kane hits a hat-trick as England thrash Bulgaria
Sterling also on target as Southgate's ruthless side punish defensive blunders in 4-0 win at Wembley
If England can expect to attend the gathering of the European elite, Harry Kane finds himself in exalted company. Gareth Southgate’s side can be even more confident of attending Euro 2020 after seeing off Bulgaria.
Their captain’s latest hat-trick took him to 25 international goals. It means he has more than Sir Geoff Hurst and Marco van Basten and if the England captain may never score a hat-trick in a World Cup final or win the Ballon d’Or three times, he already had a distinction two of the striking greats never achieved.
Neither won the World Cup’s Golden Boot and if Kane’s penalty-taking prowess was a reason he did, it was unsurprising his two of this three against Bulgaria came from 12 yards.
On Kane's spot-kick skills, Southgate said: "We watch him do it every day. He took a lot of penalties yesterday and we were very confident sat on the bench watching him today.
"He is a brilliant example for any youngster, you can see how he composes himself and the goalkeeper doesn't know where he will go."
It came as England killed off their visitors with three-second half-goals. In a theme of the day, Krasimir Balakov’s team were architects of their own downfall.
Kane capitalised on their mistakes with typical ruthlessness. A specialist from the spot converted nervelessly after Nikolay Bodurov unceremoniously upended Marcus Rashford and with similar precision after Kristian Dimitrov fouled Kane himself.
Had the Tottenham forward not strayed offside when sweeping in Raheem Sterling’s earlier centre, he would have had four. As it was, striker and winger nevertheless contrived to combine profitably for England’s first and third goals.
Bulgaria’s defensive tactics demanded they were flawless. Instead, they committed an embarrassing error with a disastrous attempt to play out from the back when England broke the deadlock.
Bulgaria goalkeeper Plamen Iliev only succeeded in picking out Sterling inside the penalty box. The winger showed greater accuracy to find Kane, who tucked in his shot to maintain his record of scoring in every qualifier so far.
Kane showed he can be provider as well as predator, setting up Sterling’s goal with a centre that went in off the winger’s midriff. It was hardly a classic goal but it underlined that a reason for Sterling’s increasingly prolific return is that he keeps getting into scoring positions.
Having only scored four goals in the rest of his England career, he now has five in this embryonic qualifying campaign.
Bulgaria’s haplessness allowed Southgate to experiment. Kieran Trippier, out of the squad for the Nations League, returned to the starting 11. Harry Maguire ended up with the captain’s armband, a sign of his increasing seniority, after Kane was substituted on a day for old faces and new.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain capped his comeback with a first international appearance in 18 months while Mason Mount, another substitute, got his England debut, a reward for his fine start to his Chelsea career.
Ross Barkley, his team-mate for club and country, was prominent and increasingly looks part of Southgate’s strongest side.
The one concern may be that while his back four had little defending to do for spells, Jordan Pickford was still required to excel. Bulgaria could rue their profligacy. Their attacks were isolated but they did have chances. The debutant Wanderson tested Pickford while the goalkeeper held Ivelin Popov’s header when the Bulgaria captain arrived unmarked in the box.
The best chance came at the start of the second half when one naturalised Brazilian, Marcelinho, released another, Wanderson. The newcomer connected sweetly with a half-volley but directed it straight at Pickford.
Within a minute, Nikolay Bodurov had brought down Rashford and Kane had put England out of sight. Pickford later saved well from Popov’s free kick but it felt academic by then.
Balakov graced a Bulgaria team who reached the last four of the 1994 World Cup. The current group, who have gone eight games without a win, look unlikely to even be among the 24 in Euro 2020. Once mighty, they have fallen.
Updated: September 7, 2019 10:35 PM