STAR PREVIEW: Bulgaria v England

England had a rather brutal reality check – no, I’m not using the ‘Reality Czech’ pun – when they lost 2-1 to the Czech Republic on Friday which has turned what had the potential to be a rather drab game into an extremely important one.

England are still within touching distance of a place at Euro 2020 – indeed if they beat Bulgaria and Kosovo fail to get three points against Montenegro they will qualify – but a commanding performance is likely to be needed to reassure fans and Friday’s defeat has long term repercussions. As a result of that defeat, England are no longer guaranteed one of the six top seedings next summer – even if they win all of their remaining games and the Three Lions could even face the prospect of being placed in the same group as world champions France or Belgium, one of the tournament favourites.

There should be some realism here – that was England’s first qualifying defeat in 10 years and 44 games, and this side has gone from European Championship knockouts to World Cup semi-finals – but there are issues for Southgate to work on. Upfront, with Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho as their attacking line, England are blessed with world-class forward power.

However, there is a defensive crisis that must be addressed. When England’s backline is fully fit with John Stones and Joe Gomez Southgate does have two centre-backs who can play a high tempo game, but with Stones out and Gomez left on the bench, England started Michael Keane and Harry Maguire. Keane was abject – much like his struggling club side Everton – whilst Harry Maguire was better, but not by much.

England’s defensive areas also aren’t helped by the poor form of Danny Rose (again, another player from a club side that is struggling badly) who conceded the corner that led to the equaliser for the Czechs. Jordan Pickford was caught on his line for the first goal and is another Everton player who’s struggling.

There are also worries over the form of Declan Rice, who was meant to be the midfield anchor but who hasn’t hit the same notes for his country as he has for his club.

These are all issues that need to be fixed before next summer though, and on all evidence, a trip to Bulgaria is a drop in class compared to Prague.

Bulgaria v England
UEFA EURO 2020 Qualifier
19:45 ITV 1 HD / ITV Hub

(Maximum 10 matches, since 2000)
SEP 2019 EURO 2020 QUALIFYING England 4-0 Bulgaria
SEP 2011 EURO 2012 QUALIFYING Bulgaria 0-3 England
SEP 2010 EURO 2012 QUALIFIYING England 4-0 Bulgaria

Bulgaria are winless in ten matches and the recent appointment of Krasimir Balakov hasn’t really helped matters. The new coach was part of the side that went to the World Cup in 1994 but hasn’t managed to turn things around, although he has a hell of a task. This current crop is less talented, to be kind – none of the current Bulgarian crop play in any of Europe’s top five leagues and 14 of the 24-man squad play in their domestic division. The only player with more than two international goals is Skipper Ivelin Popov, but he’s a defensive midfielder who ends up sometimes being the leading forward.

This was clear in the reverse fixture, which England won 4-0, when Harry Kane helped himself to a hat-trick (with two penalties) and the hosts won the shot count 17-4, even if just 6 of them were on target – alarm bells would be ringing if they failed to get the job done here.

Bulgaria haven’t been beaten by a wide margin for a long time – they’ve lost only four of their 16 home matches in the last 4 years, and one of them was a 1-0 defeat to France – but there could still be goals a plenty. Bulgaria have not had a trashing in a long time but eight of their last 11 games have seen three or more goals and the hosts have just 2 clean sheets in 17 competitive games.

England’s forwards are normally better than they were on Friday but they are not the problem – whilst England have defensive form concerns sides will be looking to get at them and Bulgaria will fancy having a shot at the visitors’ rickety backline. That said, England should be too good for their hosts – one imagines some ugly headlines if they’re not.

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