England 5-1 Croatia
By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer at Wembley
England secured qualification for next summer’s World Cup in South Africa in the most emphatic style as they thrashed Croatia at Wembley.
The goalless stalemate between Belarus and Ukraine left England needing only a draw to confirm their place in South Africa – but they emphasised their progress under Capello with an outstanding display to record an eighth successive win of a flawless qualifying campaign.
Croatia ended England’s hopes of reaching Euro 2008 under Capello’s predecessor Steve McClaren by winning at Wembley, but there was never any chance of a repeat in an encounter that was totally one-sided from the opening exchanges.
England have taken huge strides forward under Capello since that rain-soaked night in November 2007 and the end of the McClaren reign, while Croatia are a pale shadow of the side Slaven Bilic brought to Wembley for their previous visit.
And the gulf in class between the two teams was immediately obvious – even accounting for the absence of Croatia’s gifted playmaker Luka Modric.
Spurs winger Aaron Lennon made an early claim for a place on England’s right flank in next summer’s South African showpiece with an electrifying first 45 minutes that set the platform for victory.
Lennon, jostling for position with David Beckham, Theo Walcott and Shaun-Wright Phillips, was hauled down by Josip Simunic for Frank Lampard to put England ahead from the penalty spot after seven minutes.
He then delivered the perfect cross for Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard to double England’s lead with a firm header at the far post 11 minutes later.
England continued to create chances and only Croatia keeper Vedran Runje’s defiance stopped them adding further goals before the interval.
Lampard got his second just before the hour when he headed in Glen Johnson’s excellent cross and Gerrard grabbed a double of his own in similar fashion from Wayne Rooney’s lofted cross seven minutes later.
Arsenal striker Eduardo – jeered constantly by the Wembley crowd as the fall-out from his alleged dive against Celtic continues – grabbed a goal back for Croatia from close range with 18 minutes left, but to even label it a form of consolation would be generous in the extreme.
Gerrard headed in twice in the win over Croatia at Wembley
Rooney deservedly got on the scoresheet himself when he took advantage of a wild sliced clearance from the unfortunate Runje to score.
After the early goals from Lampard and Gerrard, Emile Heskey – preferred to Jermain Defoe – could have boosted his own confidence with a goal, but he was twice denied by Runje when clean through.
These were minor blots on England’s landscape and Heskey was given a thumping greeting of thanks from Capello when he was eventually replaced by Defoe after Lampard scored his second.
The swift double strike from Lampard and Gerrard snuffed out any hopes of a Croatia recovery, and even the muted celebrations of their colourful travelling support after Eduardo’s strike were swiftly snuffed out when Rooney scored England’s fifth.
Even hard-to-please Capello cracked smiles in his technical area, while Bilic cut a miserable figure yards away as the scene of one of his greatest triumphs turned into a nightmare.
And if England needed any further boost to the optimism that will travel with them to South Africa, the manner and scale of this victory will provide it.
England have scored 31 goals and conceded only five in a qualifying campaign that has done much to erase the bitter memories of the failure to reach Euro 2008.
A group that was initially regarded as potentially dangerous has been expertly and convincingly negotiated, with barely any hazards to block England’s smooth progress.
Capello has rebuilt the confidence and morale of a squad shattered after that experience, and while qualification for South Africa is only the first phase of the Italian’s mission, England will go to the World Cup with serious aspirations of making a major impact.