Gareth Southgate’s men stood firm in the face of sickening racism as England thrashed Bulgaria on a night of shame in Sofia.
The Three Lions took a giant stride towards Euro 2020 as they bounced back from Friday’s shock loss in the Czech Republic, yet this will match will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Nazi salutes and racist chanting marred Monday’s thumping 6-0 win in Bulgaria, where Marcus Rashford and Harry Kane goals complemented braces from Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling as the players showed great dignity in finishing the match.
Few would have blamed Southgate’s side for walking off the field at the Vasil Levski National Stadium, where play was twice halted in the first half due to racism from home fans.
A stadium announcement in the 28th minute – the first step of the UEFA protocol explained to England’s players in depth at the start of the international break – warned fans that the Group A encounter may be abandoned if they did not immediately halt racist behaviour.
Tyrone Mings, making his senior debut, appeared to be subject of some of the abuse and it looked like the second step would be invoked just before half-time, only for play to resume after a brief break.
A group of Bulgarian fans left the ground and captain Ivelin Popov spoke to some other supporters during a half-time break few would have blamed England for refusing to return from.
The PA news agency understands that various officials met at half-time and decided that the teams would walk off if racism reared its head again in the second period.
Sterling and Kane struck as the match was completed, but all the post-match talk will be about Bulgaria and the need for a fierce, firm reaction from UEFA.
For a while, this was a football match.
Rashford – one of five changes from the defeat in Prague – showed confidence and skill that belied his poor Manchester United form, collecting the ball on the left and shimmying superbly into space before unleashing a fizzing strike from an acute angle.
The play was as confident as the finish, but Bulgaria goalkeeper Plamen Iliev could have done better.
Popov forced a decent save out of Jordan Pickford as the Bulgarians tried to find a quick leveller, but the Three Lions would put their foot down and grab a second in the 20th minute.
Sterling’s quick one-two got him behind the hosts’ back line, with the forward hitting a driven cross-shot that Barkley tapped in at the far post.
That was far from the last England goal, but it was the moment that this match ceased to be about the football.
Shortly after England chants of “You racists b*******, you know what you are”, skipper Kane went to speak to referee Ivan Bebek. The technical area was a hub of activity, with a radio message sent through to the stadium announcer as Southgate spoke to his players.
A statement was read in Bulgarian and English urging the immediate end of racist behaviour, leaving onlookers numb when play resumed and Barkley grabbed a second of the night from Kane’s left-footed cross.
Play continued after the 32nd minute goal – for a while.
Southgate spoke to the referee and an in-depth discussion was held by the touchline, while a group of supporters clad in black in the home end left the stadium. A flag with the banner ‘Lauta Army’ went around that time.
Mings was given a supportive tap on the shoulder as play surprisingly resumed after several minutes rather than play being suspended, with England notching a fourth before half-time as Kane swept across for Sterling to score in first-half stoppage time.
An emotional-looking member of the Football Association backroom set-up walked around the pitch beating the England crest to applause from the away fans at half-time, when Bulgaria captain Popov spoke to some fans.
Few would have blamed the Three Lions for staying in the dressing room, yet they emerged to boos and pushed on with unrelenting hunger.
Sterling and Rashford were the biggest threats as Petar Zanev had an attempt for the stuttering Bulgarians.
Kane saw a close-range attempt denied and Sterling grabbed England’s fifth in the 69th minute, with chants soon following of “Who put the ball in the racists’ net? Raheem f***** Sterling”.
Southgate hugged the forward when replacing him and Kane hit the post before finding the net five minutes from time.
Callum Wilson also struck the woodwork – the final act of a depressing night.
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Gareth Southgate and Harry Kane vowed to bounce back from England’s shock defeat to the Czech Republic by getting their Euro 2020 qualification campaign back on track in Bulgaria.
After 43 unbeaten matches stretching across a 10-year period, the Three Lions finally lost a European or World Cup qualifier as the Czechs capitalised on the visitors’ surprisingly lacklustre performance in Prague.
Ponderous in possession, poor at the back and toothless in attack, England missed the chance to seal qualification in the Czech Republic – and can only do so on Monday if they beat Bulgaria and Kosovo fail to win their match.
Southgate could not hide his disappointment after Friday’s loss, nor could he on the eve of the Group A encounter in Sofia.
“I think we have a very honest group,” the England boss said. “They are very self-reflective.
“They know, they don’t need me to tell them when they haven’t played at the level they can.
“The key is always, OK, we have to recover quickly from the result. There’s no point us moping around and feeling sorry for ourselves.
“We all are responsible for the result.
“I am the manager, I take the ultimate responsibility and then we have to move forward and be prepared for the game tomorrow.
Southgate: "The last couple of days have been about preparing right and making sure we get a reaction. We know it’s going to be a difficult game again and we have to be at our best." pic.twitter.com/8ZrEW1xf0g— England (@England) October 13, 2019
“Slightly different sort of test but, yeah, it’s a sort of different challenge for everybody because this young team hasn’t really experienced a night like that, where we’ve had a performance and a result that was unexpected.
“I don’t think defeats harm teams. If the reaction is good, then what you learn from defeats, what you gain in resilience from defeats, are an important part of a player’s career and a person’s life.
“Maybe we were all focusing a lot on next summer, talking a lot about next summer, answering questions about a home tournament and I’ve always maintained that the first thing is we have to qualify.
“We haven’t secured that qualification yet, so our focus tomorrow is to get the performance and the result that we need.”
Kane echoed his manager’s sentiments at Natsionalen Stadion Vasil Levski, having called the loss to the Czechs a “wake-up call” immediately after the game.
“Yeah, obviously it was a disappointing performance,” the England captain said. “We know that.
“We have had a lot of praise over the last two or three years and it is the first time we haven’t performed at a high level in a game we were expected to win.
“We definitely know there is stuff to improve on. It’s important to keep the energy high, spirits high because we have another game tomorrow night.
“If we win, we’re still in a fantastic position going into the last two games, so for sure, as players, you always reflect on your own performance, and the team performance: how can I do better, how can I help my team?
“And I think we’ve all done that, and the only way to show that is going out there tomorrow and putting in a good performance.”
England will be hoping that concerns over possible racism do not become reality in Sofia, where Danny Rose will be replaced by Ben Chilwell with the Tottenham left-back suspended.
Kane: "We’ve all reflected on our performance and looked at how we can do better and hopefully that will show. If we win tomorrow night we’re still in a fantastic position going into the last two games." pic.twitter.com/3t9vpAOxjk— England (@England) October 13, 2019
Attention will be on the Three Lions’ defence, which looked shaky when shipping five goals in their last two matches, leading Southgate to ponder a return to a back three.
“I think that we’re always looking at every aspect of the game,” the former England defender said.
“We train specifically and have meetings specifically about every area of the performance, so of course there’s always additional focus when things in a certain area of the game aren’t going so well.
“In terms of tactical adjustments, we’re always thinking about what’s the best way to play to get the best players on the field – to be the most dangerous, to get the best out of our strengths, but hide our weaknesses.
“We’ve always done that over three years, so we’ve tried various formations.
“We tried something in the first half the other night (by going to a 4-2-3-1). In hindsight, because of the result and the performance that didn’t work but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right decision to have a go at it.
“If we don’t ever think about evolving and trying those things, then we’ll never progress as a team.
“We will always continue to make those assessments and the priority is to give a good performance.”
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Germany coach Joachim Low reflected on a job well done in Tallinn after his side overcame the early dismissal of Emre Can to beat Estonia 3-0 in their Euro 2020 qualifier.
Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan scored twice in the second half after the Juventus midfielder had been shown a straight red card for a professional foul.
Substitute Timo Werner added a third as Germany, who had been depleted by injuries, moved level on points with Group C leaders Holland and three clear of Northern Ireland.
“Firstly, I’m happy we got the job done. It was tough work out there,” Low said at his press conference.
“We had to regroup after the red card, the team did well after the break, we did not concede and scored three goals.
“The decisive factor was that we increased the tempo in the second half and kept calm.
“This week was not easy, with all the injuries and everything. We stayed calm and scored, so we are pleased.”
The German head coach had no complaints with Can’s dismissal.
After allowing the ball to run across him as he turned on the edge of the penalty area, former Liverpool midfielder Can made a rash sliding challenge to trip Frank Liivak as the Estonia forward looked to get clear on goal.
“Looking at the situation, you cannot award a yellow, it’s a red card,” Low said.
Veteran goalkeeper Manuel Neuer had replaced Marc-Andre Ter Stegen to captain Germany.
The Bayern Munich keeper felt the team had dealt well with the situation they found themselves in so early on.
“We were down to 10 men after 15 minutes, which makes everything more difficult as you have to reset,” Neuer said according to www.dfb.de.
“Because of that, I didn’t think it was a bad performance. It was a matter of time when the goals would eventually come. At some point we put them away.”
Estonia had been thrashed 8-0 in Mainz just four months ago.
Manager Karel Voolaid felt his side had produced a response.
“The fighting spirit was better than in Mainz, but it is the class of the opponent which beats us,” he told reporters.
“I really wanted a goal – for the team, for the audience, for the fans. I believed we could get some bravery from that.
“But let’s face it – if they were 11, we would have had a very, very hard fight.
“Even a 10-man Germany is very difficult to beat if they are organised in defence.”
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