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Sep 3, 2010

Capello confounds critics with stylish win

A hat-trick from one of your strikers, with Wayne Rooney looking comfortable off that more advanced front man, a well-taken goal from one of the young bloods and an outstanding display from the goalkeeper would seem to equal a good night's work for Fabio Capello. Yet there will be little respite for England's embattled coach, as those calling for his head will be able to see him next Tuesday.

• England 4-0 Bulgaria: Defoe stars
• Capello hails strikers
• All the pics in our gallery

The fresh scheduling of the international calendar to a Friday-Tuesday rota may play havoc with the social lives of some and the Italian boss will not be able to enjoy his weekend with much of a semblance of relaxation as he takes his team to the country he calls home - Switzerland - but, in post-match, his smile was as broad as it has been for some time.

Forced by the hand of chance, he had been forced to field an unlikely - and sadly ill-fated - central defensive partnership of a pair of players both making their first competitive international starts in Phil Jagielka and Michael Dawson. The official programme's front-page proclamation that England must "start as we mean to go on" was the type of statement of intent that the new England are banking on.

The last time an England manager whose public standing was in such freefall took on Bulgaria in an opening qualifier, Glenn Hoddle's team were jeered from the Wembley pitch after a dour 0-0 draw. Unlike Hoddle, Capello is unlikely to be publishing a "World Cup Diary" or indeed making public his views on reincarnation, but his popularity levels are highly reminiscent of Hoddle's back in 1998. He has faced similar accusations of having lost the dressing room, to bear close resemblance to the last days of Glenn.

However, as he did throughout his long career in club football, the Italian expects to be judged on results and performances, and treats the press as an annoyance - much to their annoyance - but only six points, or four at a push, can rest him easy until the visit of Montenegro in October. A manager lampooned across the tabloid media as a lame duck and in one extreme case, a "jackass", remains in charge, whatever the discomfort of his relationship with the Fourth Estate. In immediate post-match, Capello did not duck the negative press he has been receiving.

"The most important thing is to win," he said with a smirk which contained no little disdain for his questioners. "When we lose, we know what happens. You write enough when I lose."

The pens have been sharpened ever since the Algeria atrocity in Cape Town, with many a leading writer staking his reputation on calling for the head of the manager, with one even asking for him to be sacked whatever happens in this opening pair of qualifiers. Jermain Defoe's hat-trick and a well-taken goal by impressive sub Adam Johnson will have stayed calls for execution for now, but a far tougher test awaits in the Swiss, who can boast Spain at the World Cup as a notable recent scalp.

The manner of this win will perhaps only annoy those already committed to a change of regime but it may well be that Capello's England repeat the qualifying form that raised so many expectations. Just do not expect sense and realism to descend if England do qualify for Poland and Ukraine in similar style. Such are the swinging emotions and opinions of those following the England team.

That said, there were still causes for concern. That unfamiliar defence was tested at times, though Bulgaria's best early chance came when a dozing Glenn Johnson's casual swing at the ball almost took it past Joe Hart, who made an admirable save. Johnson displayed the deportment of a man who thinks he's left the front door open at home to add further doubts to those who question his defensive qualities. On the same flank, Theo Walcott laid another curate's egg, always a threat until the final pass could be delivered, though still better than the paltry efforts of Shaun Wright-Phillips and Aaron Lennon at the World Cup.

The opposite side of the pitch saw James Milner impressing, ably supported by Ashley Cole, who supplied Defoe's goal after Rooney's incisive through pass to display the "effective use of full-backs" that was so curiously hailed in England by a FIFA technical committee report released this week.

The worst news of the night was Dawson's seeming wrench of a cruciate. That will come as a greater blow to Tottenham Hotspur than England but the sadness of such misfortune befalling the defender should not be underestimated. Unused in South Africa and finally granted a deserved chance, his clear crying out of "my knee, my knee" as he writhed in agony was a shocking sight to behold. It brought on another debutant in Gary Cahill in his stead and Capello must travel to Basel running on empty of central defensive resources though, despite not picking Matthew Upson in his 18, he later expressed his confidence in the West Ham man. Bolton's Cahill suddenly, after playing just 34 minutes for his country, looks likely to be thrust into the most important qualifier since, well, the last one.

Hart, so outstanding for his Manchester City this season, repeated that form in making a couple of crucial stops to deny Bulgaria in the second half, the first of which, from Angelov, resulted in the breakaway that allowed Rooney to thread in Defoe for England's second, the settler of nerves on this occasion. Hart already looks an unqualified success. After the goalkeeping disasters of the summer just gone his non-selection there may still allow the anti-Capello camp some more ammunition to be fired through 20-20 hindsights.

Rooney, the fallen idol, meanwhile played with a freedom and effervescence not seen since his fateful injury in Munich, and linked midfield with Defoe on numerous occasions, having a hand in all three goals for his more advanced partner. "I decided to put him in that position," explained Capello. "I asked him stay in front of two central midfielders and from that position go forward."

It was a policy that paid decent dividends, as much did for Capello on this occasion, for the first time in a while. He will continue to be doubted for some time, and especially on the subject of the World Cup. "The past is the past," he maintained but he will also know that only showings like this can protect him in future.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Jermain Defoe

A well-taken hat-trick from a striker who has put off a groin operation to star for his club and country. Even better, he linked well with Rooney and Milner to add fluidity to England's attack. It looked like bad news when he limped off with an ankle injury sustained while scoring his third but Capello was not concerned about his hitman missing the trip to Switzerland.

ENGLAND VERDICT: The result, as ever, was the important thing for Capello, but it was achieved in some style, indeed more style than has been apparent since the 2010 qualifiers finished nearly a year ago. Defensive problems were apparent, perhaps by force of unfamiliarity, but Joe Hart especially was outstanding.

BULGARIA VERDICT: A poor and chaotic start for Defoe's first goal was followed by some decent defending from which confidence grew. Popov blew their best chance before Hart's save from Angelov launched the attack that saw Defoe score England's second. From there, heads went down.

NEW BOOTS AND PANTIES: England have a new kit designed by none other than Peter Saville, the artist behind the iconic imagery of Joy Division and New Order's album sleeves among a multitude of other work for Manchester's lamented Factory Records - not that the match programme chose to mention such an illustrious past. Like much of Saville's work it may not end up being the bestseller he hoped. Its multi-coloured St George's flags represent the diversity of England, supposedly.

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