Croatia 1-4 England
By Jonathan Stevenson
England players celebrate Walcott’s opener against Croatia in Zagreb
Theo Walcott hit a stunning hat-trick as England thrashed Croatia in a World Cup qualifying tie in Zagreb.
Walcott, 19, got the nod to start ahead of David Beckham and he drilled England into the lead, before Robert Kovac was sent off for an elbow on Joe Cole.
Walcott doubled the advantage by driving home and the exceptional Wayne Rooney slotted in a brilliant third.
Mario Mandzukic grabbed a consolation for Croatia, before Walcott collected Rooney’s pass and rolled in his third.
It was a magnificent performance and more than coach Fabio Capello can have dreamed for, a result which puts England firmly in control of Group Six after two wins in four days.
Croatia suffered their first competitive defeat at home and it was sweet revenge for England, beating the team that ended their hopes of qualifying for Euro 2008.
Capello will be delighted by the manner of his team’s performance and the way they dominated throughout, even before Croatia were reduced to 10 men.
England were simply far superior in every department and in Walcott, they had a player who frightened the life out of the hosts whenever he got the ball.
The Arsenal winger gave the ball away with his first touch, but from then on everything he touched seemed to turn to goals as he wreaked havoc down the flank.
With Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard dominating in midfield and Rooney linking play up between the midfield and Emile Heskey, England pinned Croatia back into their own half from the start.
After Heskey had a decent shout for a penalty, Walcott put England in front with his first goal for his country.
Danijel Pranjic’s clearance cannoned straight into Robert Kovac and when the ball fell to Walcott inside the box on the right, he lashed it into the bottom corner.
A minute later Walcott’s cross-shot from a similar position was touched behind by Stipe Pletikosa, before Josip Simunic was booked for a cynical foul as Walcott’s pace terrorised Croatia once more.
The only disappointment for England was a head injury to Joe Cole
Eight minutes after the break Croatia suffered a hammer blow when Robert Kovac went up for a challenge with Joe Cole and appeared to lead with his elbow, causing Cole to bleed from a wound on his head.
Kovac was rightly sent off and Cole had to be stretchered off, but six minutes later England went 2-0 ahead when the sublime Rooney beautifully teed up Walcott to smash in his second.
England were rampant, and Jermaine Jenas scampered away down the left and pulled the ball back for Rooney to open up his body and direct the ball into the corner.
Croatia were all over the place, but they managed a consolation when Darijo Srna broke and he fed Mario Mandzukic to drive the ball under David James.
England were not done, though, and Rooney turned provider once more to slip Walcott in on goal, the former Southampton star racing through and completing his treble.
It was England’s first competitive hat-trick since Michael Owen bagged three against Germany in the 5-1 win in Munich in 2001, and they can be every bit as pleased with this result.
BBC Sport Player Rater man of the match: England’s Theo Walcott 9.10 (on 90 minutes).
Please note that you can still give the players marks out of 10 on BBC Sport’s Player Rater after the match has finished.