England booked their passage to the 2010 World Cup Finals in South Africa in imperious manner tonight, as two goals each from Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, and one from Wayne Rooney, earned them a resounding 5-1 victory over Croatia. The home team also banished any lingering memories of the rain-soaked Wembley defeat to the same opponents two years ago that denied them a place at Euro 2008 and spelled the end of the ill-fated Steve McClaren era.
If a major criticism of McClaren was that he was too friendly with his England players then no-one would dare accuse Fabio Capello of any such sentimentality. The Italian coach bared his managerial teeth before kick-off tonight, as a listless performance in the underwhelming win over Slovenia saw Shaun Wright-Phillips excluded not just from the starting XI, but also the substitutes bench. The Manchester City winger was replaced by Aaron Lennon in an advanced role on the right side of midfield - although this was Capello’s only change from Saturday, as he ignored the clamour for Jermain Defoe and kept faith with Emile Heskey in the central striking berth.
For his part, Croatia boss Slaven Bilic found himself denied the services of Tottenham Hotspur pair Luka Modric and Vedran Corluka due to injury and suspension respectively, forcing the deployment of Darijo Srna at full-back.
There was good news before a ball had even been kicked at Wembley, as the earlier goalless scoreline between Belarus and Ukraine ensured England needed only a point from tonight’s encounter to be assured of World Cup 2010 qualification. The expectant Wembley crowd generated a tremendous noise as the game got underway, and England began in busy fashion, dominating the early stages of possession without puncturing the compact arrangement of the Croatia team.
There appeared to be jangling nerves amongst the visitors, though, with Josip Simunic – the man who haunts Graham Poll’s dreams – giving the ball away and needlessly putting his fellow defenders under pressure. But although Glen Johnson took a clumsy tumble in the box, England appeared initially unable to convert their high-tempo pressing into a coherent attacking move.
However, just as Croatia enjoyed their first moment of decent offensive play - with Ivica Olic unlucky to not win a corner as Matthew Upson shepherded him wide from a decent position - they conceded in a manner that will have made Bilic’s blood boil. Lennon burst into the box and Simunic blundered into the nippy winger to concede the kind of nailed-on penalty that can raise no questions regards possible diving. Frank Lampard took the spot-kick, an action replay of his strike on Saturday, with goalkeeper Vedran Runje comprehensively beaten low and hard to his right. One foot in South Africa for England, and with only seven minutes on the clock.
Bilic immediately urged his team to push forward, but it was England making all the running as a wonderful cross-field ball from Wayne Rooney loosed Lennon, only for the Tottenham man’s cross to disappoint. Rooney and Lennon were soon combining again, setting up Gareth Barry to hit a powerful drive from the edge of the penalty area which Runje did well to parry. Steven Gerrard also appeared far more engaged than he had against Slovenia, with his incisive forward pass finding Ashley Cole only marginally offside.
But if England needed warning that their dominance might be in danger of turning into complacency, then they received it when a needlessly over-elaborate interchange between Johnson and John Terry resulted in the Liverpool man conceding a Croatia throw-in in a dangerous position. From this, Srna was able to deliver a cross which broke to surprise starter Mario Mandzukic, and his shot flew narrowly over Robert Green’s crossbar. Once again, though, a moment of promise for the Croatians preceded a defensive catastrophe, as a high cross from the dangerous Lennon found an inexplicably unmarked Gerrard powering into the box to head back across the exposed Runje and give England a 2-0 lead. Eighteen minutes in and it appeared nothing could halt the progress of Capello’s team towards next year’s World Cup Finals.
Croatia attempted to rally, with it needing a sharp block from skipper Terry to prevent Olic from firing in a strike from the edge of the England box. It was increasingly apparent though that Bilic’s men were missing the guile of Luka Modric as they struggled to pick any holes in the home team’s backline. Runje was called into action again as he just about managed to keep out a 35-yard Lampard free-kick, and from the resulting corner Terry was close to nodding in a third goal. The crowd were enjoying it too, offering loud cheers as Upson unceremoniously dispossessed Eduardo just as the much-maligned Arsenal striker was looking to make a forward burst.
As the first half wore towards a conclusion England were increasingly dominant and Croatia increasingly ragged. If there can be any criticism of the men in white it surely was that they did not fashion a clinching goal from any of their excellent chances. The hustling Heskey closed down Runje and his rushed kick was fed back to Lennon, but his attempted dink was foiled by the goalkeeper. A neat link-up down the left saw Rooney play Gerrard into a threatening position, only for the attempted return ball to be cut out. And Heskey gave ammunition to the growing Defoe fan club as he squandered two glorious opportunities. To be thwarted once by Runje when clear of the disintegrating Croatian defence was unfortunate; to do so on a second occasion - when the big Villa striker appeared to have enough time to make a cup of tea and still score - smacked of distinct carelessness.
Bilic reacted to his side’s sobering first half display by making two halftime substitutions, with Ivan Rakitic and Mladen Petric - who scored the winner the last time the two teams met at Wembley - replacing Nikola Pokrivac and the ineffectual Olic. Petric was immediately involved, feeding Eduardo through the centre, but the right-sided combination of Johnson and Lennon moved swiftly to snuff out any threat. And smart play from Srna saw him catch England napping with a swiftly-taken corner. His ball found Mandzukic arriving at the near post, and Upson and Terry were relieved to see the Dinamo Zagreb attacker hammer the ball high over the bar.
Croatia were pushing forward, while England looked content to try and hit their opponents on the counter-attack. A quick break saw Lennon released down the right and he was hauled down for a free-kick, which Lampard swung in without any of his teammates being able to make anything of it. There was more danger for England as Ashley Cole lost Srna, and Johnson was forced to strain as his header took the ball away from the lurking Eduardo. Bilic demanded a penalty, without sympathy from the officials. Johnson was called into defensive action again as his tackle halted the advancing Petric, and the fullback was the hero at the other end seconds later as he surged to the touchline and sent in a perfect cross for Lampard to head past the luckless Runje.
With Croatia deflated and half-hour still to play, Capello attempted to turn the knife by sending Defoe on for Heskey. It was Gerrard who grabbed the next goal though. Lennon put left-back Danijel Pranjic under pressure and his hurried clearance was worked to Gerrard, who in turn released Rooney down the right of the Croatian box. The Manchester United striker floated in another centre and the leaping Gerrard met it with a splendid header as the visiting defenders helplessly watched on.
England finally conceded, albeit in unfortunate manner, as Robert Green made two smart saves – one from an offside Srna – before Eduardo fired the ball into the roof of the net from close range. Bilic curiously elected to drag Eduardo off immediately after his strike, replacing him with Bolton Wanderers new loan signing Ivan Klasnic. The moment of cheer for the visitors was short-lived anyway, as Runje produced a Paul Robinson of a clearance from a simple pass back, and Rooney stroked the ball into an unguarded net for one of the easiest goal of his prolific career.
Despite a needless booking for Terry towards the end, the glory was all England’s, prompting full time celebrations for a merited win and flawless qualification campaign.
Paul Martin, Goal.com UK
Paul Martin, Goal.com UK