England book their place in style

England book their place in style

England 5 Croatia 1

There was no wally with a brolly, just a man with a plan at Wembley tonight as England booked their ticket to the World Cup finals with a five-star performance.

Two years after Croatia triumphed in the Wembley rain to sweep England out of Euro 2008 and Steve McClaren out of a job, Fabio Capello showed how it should be done.

Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard scored two goals each to exact their own personal revenge for that horrible night, with Wayne Rooney adding another near the end.

Capello was the master technician though as England completed an eighth straight qualifying win to secure a trip to South Africa next summer with two games to spare.

Capello preferred Aaron Lennon to Shaun Wright-Phillips and was rewarded with a blistering man-of-the-match performance from the fleet-footed Tottenham star, who created two goals, plus a chance for Emile Heskey and one he wasted himself. And that was before half-time.

To say Lennon ran Croatia ragged in front of the world’s fastest man would be a supreme understatement.

Even Usain Bolt must have been impressed at Lennon’s electric turn of pace. If he had still been careering round Wembley in front of England’s delirious fans when his team-mates had disappeared for their break, it would have been no surprise.

He was certainly too fast for Josip Simunic as he sped into the box on a fateful seventh minute charge. Simunic might have been complaining. Goodness only knows why. A clearer penalty you could not wish to see.

Lampard kept his nerve and drove home from the spot.

Eleven minutes later, Lennon was at it again. Hugging the right touchline, then delivering a perfect far-post cross for Gerrard, who headed it straight back where it had come from, right into the far corner.

As things tend to happen in threes and Belarus had already done the Three Lions a favour by holding Ukraine to a draw in Minsk, meaning only a point was required to qualify, the action might have been over. Few would have complained.

But, their lead coming from Lennon, England’s offensive continued.

Smug and triumphant on his last visit, Slaven Bilic looked beaten and broken this time around as he tried to work out how to stop the onslaught.

Gareth Barry and Lampard forced Vedran Runje into flying stops, Lennon attacked the Croatia defence, then raced clear onto Rooney’s return pass, only to fluff his shot.

Then Lennon sent Emile Heskey clear. The Aston Villa man had been preferred to the free-scoring Jermain Defoe, his ability to bring others into play not in doubt.

Finding the net remains a problem. Heskey has only done it seven times for his country. Runje prevented him making it eight.

In stoppage-time, Heskey latched on to a defence-splitting Lampard pass. This time he got the ball stuck under his feet. Even this night of glory provided Capello with a reminder of the flaws in his team.

Equally, the England coach could not have been too happy at the way his defence completely fell asleep at Darijo Srna’s corner after the restart, allowing Mario Mandzukic a free shot at goal which he wasted.

Moments later, Glen Johnson got away with a penalty box foul on Eduardo. On such moments can entire campaigns turn, as both McClaren and the watching Sven-Goran Eriksson testify.

Under Capello, England know exactly where they are going.

Before Defoe could replace Heskey, they had scored again, Johnson providing the cross for Lampard to steer into the corner.

Not that they were in the mood to ease off. For Lampard, Gerrard and Barry in particular, as survivors from the last day of McClaren’s reign, the pain will never quite go away.

So it must have been very gratifying for Gerrard to see his header loop home midway through the second half.

Eduardo tucked home a consolation for Croatia, who must now overhaul Ukraine in the battle to be runners-up. England will play a part in the outcome as they visit the Ukraine next month.

For the Three Lions, that trip to Dnipropetrovsk on October 10 now represents the start of a six match build-up to the World Cup.

They can begin the journey with confidence, Rooney tapping home after a howler from Runje to increase England’s tally to nine in two matches against a Croatian team they were not expected to finish above when the draw was made in January last year.

England have found a plan since then. It looks pretty useful.

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