Harry Kane kept England on course to qualify for Euro 2020 as the skipper’s hat-trick inspired a 4-0 demolition of Bulgaria on Saturday. Kane punished woeful Bulgaria defending to open the scoring in the first half at Wembley. The Tottenham striker netted again with a penalty soon after the interval before Raheem Sterling struck to put England in complete control.
Kane claimed his second international hat-trick with another penalty, taking him to 25 goals in 40 England appearances.
Gareth Southgate’s side sit top of Group A with three successive victories and 14 goals to their credit.
Their next qualifier is against second placed Kosovo at Southampton on Tuesday.
Such is the weakness of England’s group that the 2018 World Cup semi-finalists already look odds-on to qualify for Euro 2020.
The only issue between now and the start of the tournament next June is how Southgate configures his squad to ensure they start as one of the main contenders for the trophy.
Southgate earned criticism on social media for not giving starts to in-form youngsters Jadon Sancho and Mason Mount against Bulgaria.
But, before kick-off, he defended his decision to stick with his established players, saying: “We have to win matches. It’s not a case of giving people caps. We’re trying to qualify for a European Championship.”
Kieran Trippier was a beneficiary of Southgate’s faith in his proven troops, the Atletico Madrid right-back earning a recall ahead of Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Trippier was caught out of position early on when Marcelinho got in behind him and picked out Wanderson for a shot that was too close to England keeper Jordan Pickford.
That was the low point of a subdued start from England, but Bulgaria, adopting a defensive 4-5-1 formation, were so cautious that they allowed Southgate’s men to gradually find their rhythm.
Kane had the ball in the net from Sterling’s cross in the 19th minute, but the captain’s close-range effort was correctly ruled out for offside.
Kane didn’t have to wait long for his first goal as he capitalised on Bulgaria’s farcical defending in the 24th minute.
Recklessly trying to play inside their own penalty area, Bulgaria were caught out as Georgi Sarmov’s backpass to Plamen Iliev prompted the keeper to hurriedly poke towards Vasil Bozhikov.
Sterling sensed Bulgaria’s panic and nipped in to alertly steal possession before clipping his pass back towards Kane, who slotted into the empty net from close-range.
The inclusion of Everton’s Michael Keane alongside Harry Maguire at the heart of England’s defence underlined a lack of depth at that position.
Keane has suffered from injury and confidence issues since he left Burnley two years ago, while Maguire had to go off for a few minutes during the warm-up after accidently clashing heads with team-mate Declan Rice.
Neither looked sharp when Galin Ivanov found space between them to meet Strahil Popov’s cross, only for the winger to waste his golden opportunity to equalise by nodding a weak header straight at Pickford.
Bulgaria squandered another chance immediately after half-time when Wanderson was granted time and space for a shot that Pickford repelled at his near post.
England were roused by that escape and killed off the visitors in the 49th minute.
Marcus Rashford’s incisive raid carried him into the Bulgaria area, where he was tripped by Nikolay Bodurov, earning a penalty that Kane dispatched with ease.
With Bulgaria by now well out of their depth, England bagged a third goal in the 55th minute as Rashford fed Kane and his cross was bundled in by Sterling on the goal-line.
Sancho and Mount came on in the closing stages, but it was Kane who hogged the spotlight.
He completed his treble in the 73rd minute, drilling in his second penalty after winning the spot-kick himself with a rampaging run that was ended by a foul from Kristian Dimitrov.