Goodness. Well, I don’t think that any of us were expecting that. The build up had been about as horrific as could be. A terrible performance against the Czech Republic that was not masked by a flukey, last minute equaliser in front of a booing crowd. Then, a disjointed performance against an Andorran team that is about as limited as international teams come. There were rumours of discontent within the England squad, and the sense of unease was further strengthened by Croatia’s workmanlike win against Kazakhstan at the weekend. The omens were bad. This had all the required ingredients of being a potential humiliation for an England team that has been stuttering for over two years, now. For once, however, England managed to not live down to expectations, and managed their best performance since they beat Germany in Munich seven years ago almost to the week.
For those of us that had confidently predicted a completely abject England capitulation, the first half wasn’t as bad as it might we expected. True enough, Rooney and Lampard were both initially as anonymous as the invisible man on a reconnaissance mission for the CIA, but Heskey looked surprisingly unlumbering up front and the Croatian defence occasionally looked panicked when England moved forward. When they broke, they broke fluidly, and gave Croatia a couple of scares before they scored after twenty-six minutes. The goal, when it came, was the result of some benevolent defending. Cranjic’s attempted clearance bounced off a team mate and conveniently into the path of Theo Walcott, who drove the ball across Pletikosa and in. It was, in many respects, less than they deserved. Croatia should, after all, have taken the lead after twelve minutes, when James fumbled a corner and Vedran Corluka shot wide at the second attempt from close range. Within a couple of minutes of taking the lead, Walcott, who by this point seemed to tearing Croatia apart on his own, shot across the face of goal and wide, but Croatia still looked the more convincing team going forward, with James spilling a second cross just before half-time.
The second half couldn’t have started much worse for Croatia. They had started kicking England as soon as they went a goal down, and they seemed to start the second half in the same manner, with an appalling foul and straight red card arguably putting the result beyond any doubt. Just eight minutes of the second half had been played when Robert Kovac barged into Joe Cole elbows first and sent him flying. Playing against ten men, the result was a formality from here-on in. On fifty-nine minutes, Lampard’s pass found Heskey, who in turn teed up Theo Walcott to drive in a second goal that looked remarkably similar to his first. A further four minutes had passed before Jermaine Jenas (Joe Cole’s replacement after Kovac’s assault) pulled the ball back for Wayne Rooney to end his recent drought and make it 3-0. Frank Lampard then had a goal disallowed after Emile Heskey tripped a Croatian defender. Such was the brittle confidence surrounding the England team that, three minutes later, nerves were being shredded again. John Terry appeared to be kicked in the head by a high boot from Darijo Srna, but the referee waves play on and, with Terry hopelessly out of position (and injured), Mario Mandzukic rolled the ball under David James to pull the score back to 3-1 with ten minutes still to play. We needn’t, for once, have worried. With Croatia pushing forward to try and pull a second goal back, Wayne Rooney fed a perfect pass for Walcott to complete his hat-trick and make the score a scarcely believable 4-1.
England aren’t going to win the 2010 World Cup, and there are still plenty of opportunities for them to make a mess of qualifying for the finals. There is every likelihood that this will be a false dawn. It’s hardly as if there have never been any in the past, is it? More importantly than this, it’s important that everyone keeps a lid on their expectation. Not only is English arrogance profoundly irritating, but it only increases the pressure on a limited team to unmanageable levels. For once, though, it is possible to allow a glimmer of optimism into our lives about their chance, and this seemed most unlikely earlier this evening. Even more surprising than the cohesiveness of England’s performance this evening, however, was the extent to which Croatia simply didn’t turn up. It was disappointing to see a team with so much talent resort to some pretty dreadful tactics once they went a goal down. I thought that this sort of thing didn’t really happen in the modern game any more. To this end, they deserved everything that they got.