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World Cup Euro Qual Gp 6
- The Guardian,
- Thursday September 11 2008
The sheer joy was mightier than even the achievement of wrecking Croatia’s proud unbeaten record of 35 unbeaten qualifying matches at home. With Theo Walcott’s first goals for his country packaged as a hat-trick, this was the most uncanny result for England since the 5-1 trouncing of Germany in 2001. In his first fixture of genuine significance, Fabio Capello has awakened immense expectations. Perhaps he is also the man to meet them.
Croatia were left short-staffed by a red card for Robert Kovac in the 51st minute, when England were only one ahead, but his offence was born of an inability to cope with these piratical visitors. His elbow to the head of Joe Cole left the Chelsea midfielder so bloodied and dazed that he had to be replaced by Jermaine Jenas. The damage done to Croatia in their World Cup campaign will take far longer to heal.
They enjoyed nothing more than an irrelevant goal from Mario Mandzukic and even that was not permitted to go unpunished. Within four minutes Wayne Rooney was sending Walcott through to roll home his third goal and complete the scoring. The 19-year-old had become the contemporary version of Michael Owen on that occasion in Munich, ending the seven-year vigil for a hat-trick by an England player in a competitive match.
How foolish it now seems that there was questioning of Capello’s decision that Owen, in semi-fit condition for Newcastle United, would not be required in Zagreb. Who supposed that Rooney would find the net again for his country after 11 months of frustration?
Capello will hear only praise, but he is unlikely to dwell on it. England, after all, did not proceed from Munich to lift the World Cup. With this outcome he has simply done the maximum possible so far.
His legend was not in particular need of burnishing but Walcott’s goals make the Italian look a magus of a manager for England, although it is the skills of players that are truly decisive. There were confident showings in all areas of the team last night, with the centre-backs Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, for instance, authoritative under pressure.
It is goals that hold the richest promise of fulfilment. Walcott put England in front although the opportunity had its random element, with Danijel Pranjic clearing a Rooney pass and smacking the ball into the back of his team-mate Robert Kovac. Possession dropped to Walcott and from a tight angle on the right the Arsenal player found the far corner. Soon he was learning that prominence has its unpleasant consequences as, seven minutes from half-time, Josip Simunic inflicted a professional foul for which he was booked.
The atmosphere at the Maksimir usually galvanises Croatia but that, of course, was an incentive to Capello. With this triumph his methods are beyond criticism, and his new team have already taken a long stride towards the 2010 World Cup.
In addition, victory was England’s settling of accounts with the sorrowful past. A 3-2 win for Croatia at Wembley 10 months ago barred them from Euro 2008. Failure breeds instability and of Capello’s starting line-up here only Gareth Barry, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole had kicked off that night in November 2007.
Last night’s plan entailed the overriding of Capello’s natural conservatism, with Walcott continuing in place of David Beckham. Any reservations about the youngster’s ability to cover had been superseded by the conviction that his speed would unsettle Croatia, although the former captain did come on for a cameo and his 105th cap when the game had been won.
England, inevitably in a trying environment, were not uniformly efficient. Ashley Cole, for instance, was unsteady at the start and set-pieces spread panic. After 13 minutes David James palmed a corner towards Vedran Corluka but his drive missed the target. With half an hour gone the goalkeeper flapped a free-kick to Mladen Petric only for the forward’s effort to rebound from Wes Brown.
Croatia’s difficulties were far more severe. Simunic was inexcusably spared a second yellow card after body-checking Rooney, but the leniency of the referee Michel Lubos turned out to have its limits. There was no option but to send off Kovac for the elbow to the head of Cole
Slaven Bilic’s side were outplayed and out of control. The second goal for Walcott, drilled with vast confidence from an angle on the right, was set up by Rooney after neat interplay with Emile Heskey, who guided the United man back to a more exuberant and influential level.
England, avoiding leniency against short-staffed opposition, struck again four minutes later. A Jenas cut-back was converted by Rooney. Croatia, so often imperious here, were left with nothing more to do than strive for damage limitation. It was an extraordinary achievement by England. Afterwards, Capello was in a mood to consign it to the archives, but this rout ought to be a memory which will invigorate the squad.