ENGLAND booked their ticket to the World Cup finals with a five-star performance at Wembley last night.
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 hailed the “best performance” of his reign. The Italian coach declared: “We played quick, moved the ball and moved when we did not have the ball.
“The first 20 minutes were fantastic and we were very compact.
“The performance tonight was very important and we did everything which we tried in training. Now we can talk about South Africa.”
Much had been made of Slaven Bilic’s pre-match talk over this team having lost their “Englishness”.
Capello, however, maintained there was no reason to take the former West Ham and Everton defender to task.
“I spoke with Bilic,” Capello said.
“He said that it is now a different team tactically, not the spirit.
“I made sure of what he had said.”
Aaron Lennon was the man who ran Croatia ragged.
He was certainly too fast for Josip Simunic as he sped into the box on a seventh minute charge. Simunic might have been complaining, but 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.
However, 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.
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 but England finished on a high, Rooney tapping home after a howler from Runje.
ENGLAND: R Green; G Johnson, J Terry, M Upson, A Cole; A Lennon, G Barry, F Lampard, S Gerrard; E Heskey; W Rooney.
Subs: J Defoe for Heskey, 59; Beckham for Lennon, J Milner for Gerrard, 81.
CROATIA: V Runje; D Srna, N Pokrivac, J Simunic, I Krizanac, O Vukojevic, N Kranjcar, M Mandzukic, D Pranjic, Eduardo, I Olic.
Subs: I Rakitic for Pokrivac, 46; M Petric for Olic 46; I Klasnic for Eduardo, 73.
Referee: Alberto Undiano Mallenco (Spain).
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