Bulgaria 0-6 England: Improved visitors thrash their hosts against ugly backdrop
An image to sum up a night of mixed emotions (Photo: Getty Images)

Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley each netted a double apiece, despite disgusting discriminatory behaviour from the Bulgarian fans overshadowing a particularly one-sided contest.

As discussions continued throughout the contest between coaching staff, UEFA delegates and often players from both sides, the visiting side kept their professionalism as they passed their way around a deflated home set of players.

England now move within just a couple of points of Euro 2020 qualification.

Sour precursor

There was tension heading into the Euro 2020 qualifier with England setting their stance of not being afraid to walk off the pitch if there was any hint of racism directed towards their players.

In response, Bulgaria manager Krasimir Balakov suggested England had a greater problem in that respect, despite one stand being closed as a 'punishment' against racist chanting in previous Bulgarian qualifiers.

Incidents off the pitch, yet to be fully detailed by the police but involving one death and at least another injury, further fuelled the strained relations between the two nations at contrasting ends of Group A.

And then chanting by both sets of fans during their respective opponents' national anthems made a mockery of the #EqualRespect image that followed the distasteful precursor.

Rashford puts recent form to bed

Underpinned by a pressured weekend following their 2-1 defeat to Czech Republic, a side that lost 3-2 at home to Northern Ireland as England stepped onto Bulgarian turf, the faces in red shirts looked relaxed in the visiting tunnel.

That, despite several players not enjoying their greatest spells of form. Tyrone Mings making his international debut following an error against Norwich last weekendKieron Trippier shipped to Spain after being offloaded by Spurs during the summer; Ross Barkley struggling to get games for ChelseaMarcus Rashford without a goal in open play over the past two months; Jordan Pickford under pressure at Everton.

Even the big names of Harry Kane and namesake Maguire had been struggling for their clubs.

But any nerves were soon slashed away by a stunning effort from one of those names - Marcus Rashford. Patient play following quick reactions to pick up a loose ball by Barkley set the move rolling before Rashford took it past one and then another to the byline, only to cut back inside and lash home a stunning drive from an acute angle. 1-0 England after just seven minutes.

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Barkley doubles the advantage

But scoring has not been a problem for an English side, averaging four goals every game during this qualifying campaign - the issues had been swelling at the other end of the pitch.

When Ivelin Popov drove a strike towards the bottom corner, Pickford did well to get down to the shot but could only parry it back into a dangerous area. A heart in mouth moment before the visiting defence eventually hooked the ball away.

Unlike the Czechs on Friday night, Bulgaria were not willing to press, instead happy to contain and sit deep, sometimes with a backline of six, looking to spring on the counter-attack.

Yet, by 20 minutes on the clock, England had unlocked their opponents once again. Raheem Sterling latched onto a pass through the lines before squaring the ball to Barkley for an easy tap in.

Third visiting strike, despite ugly backdrop

After a handful of hefty challenges, issues surrounding the contest again started to spiral - reports of racist behaviour directed towards Mings and Sterling.

The referee halted the unsavoury scenes to speak in length to Kane, Jordan Henderson and Bulgarian Popov before a tannoy announcement warning the home spectators of their behaviour, as per UEFA's official protocol. Meanwhile, a group dressed in black were pictured holding 'no respect' labels and making discriminatory gestures.

Even when the game was restarted after a four-minute delay, vocals of jeers were directed towards Rashford on a powerful run before he was unceremoniously hacked down.

But England showed their professionalism inside the hotbed atmosphere. Trippier neatly controlled under loud negativity before passing the ball back to Kane. The Spurs striker found space on the edge of the penalty area before curling a delightful cross for Barkley to head home a second.

Contest halted again before Sterling adds a fourth

With Sterling quite rightly bubbling due to the unsavoury incidents off the pitch, England's star man was left furious when not awarded a penalty following a clumsy challenge by Kamen Hadzhiev.

But Bulgaria offered no threat other than to themselves. A wild effort from Petar Zanev was the best they could muster before Rashford slashed a strike high and wide when he perhaps should have doubled his tally for the night.

And then the discriminatory issues spilled over again as Gareth Southgate was reportedly forced to make comments over another incident. Lengthy conversations took place between both managers and the English players, whilst a large set of the aforementioned spectators were seen making their way out of the stadium.

Yet a visibly emotional Southgate agreed with his squad to see out the contest to half-time at least.

Ironically, it was one of those players receiving the abuse who netted a fourth on the stroke of half-time. Trippier once again linked well with Kane, this time playing him inside the Bulgarian defence before sliding a ball across to Sterling for a tap-in, similar to the assist he played for Barkley.

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Sterling responds with a smiling influence

Half-time team talks were disrupted as Southgate continued his discussions with UEFA representatives, whilst Popov appeared to be pleading with Bulgarian sections of the stadium to halt any discriminatory behaviour. 

But we still had a game.

The Bulgarians came out with much more tempo but the first opportunity of the half fell to the England captain as Kane stung the palms of Plamen Iliev from close range.

And England should have added a fifth goal moments later. Neat interplay between Kane and Rashford resulted in the latter being thwarted by Iliev before Sterling placed the ball wide from the rebound.

But Sterling continued to show himself, broad smile entrenched on his face, and took centre stage in the most challenging of circumstances. Rashford played the ball across to the man plying his club trade across Manchester but his stinging effort was kept out by an improved Iliev.

At the other end, Zanev finally tested Pickford, of sorts, with a daisy-cutter that was comfortably pounced upon.

England's star man rounds off professional response

The English continued to probe, despite more depressing reports from the stands. Kane bullied his way through a herd of Bulgarian defenders before prodding a strike straight at the now inspired Iliev.

England were well in control of the tempo and possession, a stark contrast to their football on Friday night. Kane again bundled forward, this time releasing Sterling who comfortably slotted past Iliev for his second of the contest.

It marked the end of another impressive night for Sterling, both professionally and personally, as both he and Barkley were rested before Marcus Rashford also made way. Mason Mount, Jadon Sancho and Callum Wilson were given minutes in their place.

Kane adds confidence-boosting goal

But for Harry Kane the frustrations continued - at least for a short period. Henderson threaded a ball through to his skipper before his lashed effort bounced off the far post.

Yet, with five minutes left, Kane finally added his name to the scoresheet. Pressure from Mount won the ball back before Kane took charge, slotting the ball between a defender's legs before firing into the bottom corner for his eighth goal of the qualification campaign.

As the home side flew into challenges, another loose ball fell to Mount who tested Iliev from range as the young Chelsea star hunted his first England goal.

And there was still time for Sancho to keep Iliev's gloves warm, striking straight at the Bulgarian goalkeeper from close range, moments before Callum Wilson prodded against the outside of the post with the last kick of the game.

A quite remarkable night for both the right and wrong reasons.

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Key takeaway from the game

English professionalism to be admired

At so many different moments, the English players could have lost control. Berated around their own country for a poor performance on Friday night, they came into this match under pressure despite still being top of Group C.

The unsavoury incidents off the pitch would have drilled deep into the personalities of many in red shirts but they resisted the temptation to launch into strong challenges and continued to play their own stylish way when at the top of their collective game.

After the second racism incident, many would have been expecting the English to walk but they stood firm, even netting a fourth goal just moments later. Sterling had responded to similar incidents earlier in the campaign with his hands over his ears but this time he opted to ignore the vocal negativity as he continued to lead a passionate fight from the front.

If anything, the abuse off the pitch stalled the game of the Bulgarians more than the squad it was directed towards.

In contrast, England moulded their travelling support and watchful fans from home into a collective national spirit, combining forces with the fight against racism.