One gets the impression that the crutches have never really come off.
Time: Friday September 3rd, 8:00 PM GMT (12:00 PM PST)
Location: Wembley, London
Preamble: The European Championship will be contested in 2012, dual hosted by the Ukraine and Poland. This tournament will feature 16 of Europe's top international teams battling it out. This game, and the game following against Switzerland, are part of the qualification process for England to reach the final tournament as one of the 16 competing nations. After a disastrous World Cup, England will want to get the qualification process started with a win. Drop points against Bulgaria and the nation will be baying for blood. In order to qualify, England will have to come at least second in a group that includes Switzerland, Bulgaria, Wales, and Montenegro. It would be inexcusable for them not to better the last qualification round, where they finished third behind Croatia and Serbia. Fabio Capello's predecessor lost his job over failure to qualify for Euro 2008 - will the story be different for the grizzled Italian?
England: The Three Lions will be without Chelsea duo Frank Lampard and John Terry, but are otherwise expected to line up in the same lopsided 4-4-2 they used during the later stages World Cup, with Phil Jagielka and Theo Walcott replacing Terry and Lampard respectively. The expected lineup is as follows: Joe Hart, Ashley Cole, Phil Jagielka, Matthew Upson, Glen Johnson, James Milner, Steven Gerrard, Gareth Barry, Theo Walcott, Jermaine Defoe, and Wayne Rooney. It's not really inspiring that Capello has decided that the 4-1 loss against Germany warranted zero changes to the system, but there's still enough quality in the team that they should prove too much for Bulgaria.
Opposition: On the plus side, they're without Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov. As he's the sort of player most prone to causing headaches for the England - i.e. intelligent enough to not come at them head on with elements of subtlety to his game - Bulgaria have lost their most potent weapon in their quest to leave Wembley with their share of the points. Also on the plus side is the fact that they're not very good. Their defence is flimsier than a piece of tissue paper stuck inside a fire tornado, and their goalkeeper isn't much better. Unless England play their own worst enemy (not out of the question), the Bulgarian defence will leak goals.
But there's bad news, of course. There's some talent on the squad, and their most threatening player will make the most of the space Glen Johnson leaves vacant on his forays forwards. Considering that Theo Walcott would be the man to cover in such a situation, it's not out of the question that Bulgaria simply have free run of that whole flank when they're in possession. And they'll be in possession a lot, since they're playing a 4-2-3-1, which means that our friend the three-man midfield triangle will be showing up at Wembley.
Thoughts: The formation difference shouldn't be enough to matter given the gap in skill between the teams, especially as England's strengths primarily lie in out-muscling opponents and running them ragged, which should disrupt Bulgaria's shape. Ashley Cole down the left side will also help to push James Milner inside, which might help even out the midfield battle. The fact of the matter is, though, that against teams with even basic possession capabilities, England have looked feeble. Hungary are the latest example, and it took two goals by Gerrard for England not to lose against the Magyars.
You get the feeling that once more, Capello is simply trusting in Wayne Rooney to make it right. Perhaps the coach is correct and the United talisman will lead the team on in qualifications. But putting all of your eggs in one rickety old basket proved to be a rather silly plan in the World Cup - it just turns out there's no plan B, and looks like there never will be one. Considering all of the injuries sustained to England players over the past few weeks, there's never been a better time to try a new formation or new personnel, but instead it's just the same old team we had before.
Not a good time to be an England fan, but fortunately our opposition gives us some leeway to get away with our errors. The players should also be much fresher, and that combination should lead England to an easy win where they never really play very well.