When you have got the rub of the green, you have got the rub of the green. England’s job became fifty per cent easier before they even kicked off last night as Ukraine and Belarus played out a 0-0 draw, meaning that they only needed a draw rather than a win against Croatia at Wembley. Still, though. Another match that left the viewer wondering, “well, what the hell was that?”. The history of the England national team is punctuated with moments like this (Germany in 2001, Brazil in 1984, Argentina in 1980), but they seldom come when it matters. Whisper it quietly: Fabio Capello is building quite a decent team here.
Within a couple of minutes, England could or should have had a penalty. Gerrard tried to lift the ball over Krizanac, who handled just inside the penalty area but the referee, who was possibly still warming up, gave the benefit of the doubt and waved play on. This, though, was just a brief respite for Croatia. Five minutes later, England did have a penalty. There are no players that look or run more like their Pro Evolution Soccer counterparts than Aaron Lennon, and his run into the penalty looked momentarily like someone that didn’t quite understand football had taken over the control pad. Lennon, however, was laying a (not particularly sophisticated) trap for the Croatian defender. Simunic fell for it, throwing himself into an absurdly risky tackle, Lennon tumbled and Frank Lampard stepped up to drive the ball in to give England the lead.
England were tidy. They were concise. Whereas they have in recent years had the air of a flatulent British Leyland engine from the 1970s, coughing, spluttering and occasionally misfiring, Capello had them ticking over and purring when they pushed down on the accelerator. Mind you, Croatia weren’t offering much resistance. Without the injured Modric, they had little creative spark in the centre of the pitch and easily allowed themselves to be pushed around by an England side which seems to have finally been taught to get the simple things right and think about what they are doing. It only took until the seventeenth minute for Lennon to cross for Steven Gerrard to head past Runje, the Croatian goalkeeper. The Croatians took fully twenty-five minutes to have a spell of sustained possession, but even this counted for little as Eduardo da Silva was so isolated up front that he was simply crowded off the ball every time he got anywhere near it.
If Croatia regrouped at half-time, it wasn’t automatically noticeable at the start of the second half. England, however, started raggedly and looked as if they were going off the boil when they scored a third goal just before hour mark, Johnson pulling the ball back from the touchline for Lampard to head wide of the goalkeeper and into the corner. Runje, the sole representative of the Croatian team that deserved better than he got last night, continued to be their busiest player and often their sole line of defence. By this time, the Croatians were already playing like a thoroughly beaten team, and it took just eight minutes for England to add a fourth goal, Rooney this time crossing for Gerrard to head in.
There was, however, still time for a small reminder that England cannot afford to be defensively complacent. With seventeen minutes to play, a cross from the left allowed Eduardo a surprisingly free header at goal, Robert Green saved well and got up to also blocked the rebound but, with the English central defence having not reacted quickly enough to these two alarm calls, Eduardo got in for a third time and sneaked the ball over the line. The goal was too little, too late but any hopes of anything like a comeback were snuffed out once and for all six minutes later, when Runje sliced a clearance straight into the path of Rooney, who rolled the ball into an empty goal. There were shades of Paul Robinson in Zagreb three years ago about it all, but the mis-kicking boot was on the other foot this time.
At full-time, with England having played out the last twelve minutes with little difficulty, we could reflect on a job brilliantly and effectively done. So many of the issues that we have come to take for granted over the last few years that they are starting to look like things of the past. Why couldn’t Lampard and Gerrard play together in the same team? Why couldn’t England play consistently? Like most equations, the answers seem so much easier once they have been solved. There do remain a couple of issues that remain unanswered and mean that talk of England winning the World Cup continues to be premature. Emile Heskey still doesn’t quite look like the perfect foil for Wayne Rooney. He had chances to score but again couldn’t take them. The goalkeeping position continues to also raise questions, although Robert Green’s confidence continues to visibly grow with each passing match. This was his fifth successive game, though. Even this question is looking more resolved than it was.
With two matches to spare, then England have qualified for the World Cup finals in South Africa next summer. It remains doubtful that they can live with the likes of Spain and Brazil next summer, but confidence is a powerful attribute and they must now have it in spades. Caution, as usual is required. World Cup qualification is World Cup qualification whether you do it at a canter or in the last minute of the final qualifying match, and there remain critics that will argue – with some degree of justification – that this was an easy group to qualify from. However, a football team can only beat the opposition that it is put up against, and England’s perfect record so far under Capello will send a shiver down the spine of their detractors. The contrast with the chaos of November 2007 couldn’t be more striking.