England qualified for next summer’s World Cup with a devastating demolition of rivals Croatia on a near perfect night at Wembley. All the talk beforehand was of revenge after defeat two years ago against the Croats cost England a place at the European Championships. However, on a night where the Three Lions showed just how far they have come from that dark night at Wembley in November 2007, there never looked likely to be a repeat of such failings. Fabio Capello’s team nearly picked itself for the game with Aaron Lennon deservedly usurping Shaun Wright-Phillips on the right after his excellent substitute appearance against Slovenia at the weekend pushed him ahead. The one position that had sparked debate however, was that of who was to partner Wayne Rooney up top.
2 Johnson – 6 Terry – 5 Upson – 3 A. Cole
7 Lennon – 8 Lampard – 11 Barry – 4 Gerrard
9 Heskey – 10 Rooney
It was to be Emile Heskey who got the nod, ahead of the on-fire Jermain Defoe, and the Aston Villa man put in a typical performance, winning a huge amount of headers and linking up the play nicely. Although missing two glorious first-half chances will have brought plenty of moans from England fans, Heskey contribution was effective at the least. The Heskey/Defoe debate looks set to rumble on but it is clear who Capello favours at present even if the majority of fans disagree. Something that has surfaced throughout Capello’s reign is that of respect from the Three Lion’s faithful, as even though most think Defoe’s goals contribute more to the team than Heskey’s bullish attitude and excellent hold-up play, fans respect Capello’s decision and after qualifying for the World Cup with two games to spare along with the untarnished 100% record, Capello is a difficult man to disagree with.
England’s thrashing of Croatia will have no doubt made the rest of the world sit up and take note of an improving Three Lions and what Capello has brought to the table for a national set-up once in crisis. When Steve McClaren started out he promised fans high tempo and passionate play – the identities of the English game. Needless to say it never materialised. However, Capello’s England is a different machine. The pressing and closing of the opposition all over the pitch was what uneased Croatia, as Slaven Bilic’s men were never allowed to knock the ball around as comfortably as they did on their last visit to Wembley. England harried and chased them in a frenetic first-half, with Heskey so vital to this. Pressing the defenders is essential to giving the midfielders a chance to close down their opposite numbers when they acquire the ball, so with Heskey and Rooney rushing defenders, the Croats were never able to break into their stride. Whether, the same kind of chasing would be done by Defoe is questionable, which may be a reason why goal-shy Heskey continues to keep the Tottenham hit-man on the bench.
While England’s offerings without the ball were top class, their efforts with it were almost superb. Not for a long time has an England team played with such confidence and quality when in possession with many slick passing moves resulting in excellent openings for the likes of Lennon and Heskey. The way Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry, Rooney and Gerrard pulled the Croats around the pitch was a delight, and with Lennon hogging the touchline on the opposite side, the change of play was a real source of joy for the Three Lions after pulling the defenders out of position. Many still question Lennon’s final ball but the Spurs winger clipped in a beautiful ball for Gerrard’s first and with Glen Johnson’s outstanding attacking qualities backing him up, those two could be a real weapon for Capello down the right. In fact Capello has two of the best attacking full-backs in world football to call upon at present. Ashley Cole’s recent form has been nothing short of phenomenal and it is difficult to imagine Gerrard excelling like he is on the left without the boundless energy and cover Cole offers behind him.
No doubt numerous fans will be wary of Johnson’s defensive abilities on the other side, but it is something he will surely improve on under Rafa Benitez at Liverpool. The former Portsmouth man has come under a little criticism this week and he will not have helped his cause much last night with Croatia’s goal being created down England’s right, just like Slovenia’s late consolation on Saturday. Johnson has all the attributes to be a top class defender but his casual nature has been exploited in recent games and it is something he and Capello will need to address. However, it must be said, Johnson defended very well for the majority of the match, epitomised by his superb goal-saving header as Eduardo looked destined to head home.
The two full-backs are just as imperative to England’s attacking set-up as they are to the defensive set-up under Capello. Barry’s screening of the back four allows either full-back to venture forward at any given opportunity, and as Johnson proved when setting up Gerrard for his second of the night – they can be very effective. Gerrard’s performance on the left of midfield was perhaps the biggest positive of the night, as the Liverpool man looks ever more comfortable and threatening in that role. Ideally, Gerrard would line up in the same kind of role he does for his club but with that right seemingly not an option, he has taken his chance on the flank and his link-up with Rooney and Heskey, in addition to his willingness to get into goalscoring positions, would have been particularly pleasing for Capello. Lampard joined Gerrard in finally showing his club form for his country as the pair notched a brace each, and when they are both in that kind of mood, it goes a long way to proving Capello right when leaving Defoe out in order for Heskey to link up and get the best out of the likes of Lampard, Gerrard and Rooney around him – something the more selfish natured goal-getter Defoe would be less inclined to do.
While hitting Croatia for five en route to cementing a place in the World Cup finals was joyous to say the least, Capello will undoubtedly be playing down his side’s achievement and warning of complacency. In addition, after watching Capello since his tenure began just under two years ago, it is safe to say the Italian will be eyeing improvements, even after such a fantastic display. England can now officially start counting down the days until the eagerly awaited kick-off in South Africa on June 11 next year, and after the 5-1 demolition of the country ranked ninth in the world, England fans will be licking their lips in anticipation, as the belief in Capello and his ever-improving England rises further.
England 5-1 Croatia – Lampard 8 (pen), 59, Gerrard 18, 66, Rooney 77 – Eduardo 73
England – (4-4-2) Green – Johnson, Terry, Upson (Lescott 64), A. Cole – Lennon (Beckham 80), Lampard, Barry, Gerrard (Milner 81) – Rooney, Heskey (Defoe 60)
Croatia – (4-4-2) Runje – Srna, Krizanac, Simunic, Pranjic – Mandzukic, Vukojevic, Pokrivac (Rakitic 45), Kranjcar – Eduardo (Klasnic 74), Olic (Petric 45)
Green – unlucky to have his clean sheet spoiled -7
Johnson – unconvincing at the back, threatening going forward – 7
Terry – quality leadership, solid – 7
Upson – a fine back-up – 7
A. Cole – energetic and defensively solid yet again – 7
Lennon – two assists, a real threat – 8
Lampard – well taken goals, dictated the play – 8
Barry – his best performance for a while – 8
Gerrard – pure class, a threat all game – 9
Rooney – excellent link up, deserved his goal – 8
Heskey – good work, shame