What a night in Zagreb for England, and who would have thought England would score four goals and in such a wonderful fashion, after their disappointing performance four days earlier against Andorra in Barcelona. After Croatia ended England's hopes of qualifying for the Euro 2008 finals, David Beckham said it best, "We want revenge against Croatia"*, and revenge the team got. It was a refreshing change for England to dazzle in the way they did this evening. Going into the match, Croatia had never lost a competitive match in the Maksimir Stadium. The visitors had Rio Ferdinand back in the starting line-up, getting his 70th cap, after he had missed the previous World Cup qualifier through a back injury. Wes Brown replaced Glenn Johnson, and Emile Heskey and Joe Cole both got the nod from Capello.
This match will be sure to breathe life into the England team after a dismal Euro 2008 qualifying campaign. Despite two early attempts to score the opening goal, Croatia failed to cause too much of a concern during the first half. England on the other hand, waited and pounced, seizing their opportunities when they arose. Theo Walcott scored his first senior goal in the 26th minute, of what turned out to be a glorious night for him. Pranjic made a clearance but the ball went off Simunic to Walcott who fired a low shot into Croatia's net. The Arsenal youngester could have had a second goal not too much later, but Pletikosa managed to turn the ball away.
With 53 minutes on the clock, Robert Kovac was dismissed for using his elbow as he went up for a challenge with Joe Cole. The incident left Cole with a bleeding head wound and required to be stretchered off and replacd by Jermaine Jenas. With Croatia down to 10 men, and England already in control, it was only a matter of time before England were on the scoresheet again. Heskey and Rooney worked well to get the ball to Walcott for the teenager to put another low shot past Pletikosa. Fantastic football and it got better in the 63rd minute when Rooney ended his 11 month goal drought with a great goal.
Croatia got a consolation goal in the 78th minute when Mandzukic beat James, but England were not done, and Walcott scored his third goal of the evening with eight minutes remaining, when Rooney fed him the ball and he fired the ball under Pletikosa. A job impecably done by Walcott who notched up a hat-trick in only his second start for the senior team against good opposition (Croatia are ranked by FIFA to be 5th in the world, while England are in 15th place), the first hat-trick by an England player since Michael Owen in 2001 in Germany.
So a glorious night for England in Croatia, which will hopefully inspire the team for their next World Cup qualifier which is 11 October.
* Courtesy of Nuts magazine. More comments from David Beckham with Nuts Magazine prior to this match (with thanks to Nuts magazine):
Goldenballs Sounds The Battle Cry As Englandís World Cup Assault Begins
Hi Becks! Itís Croatia again. What makes you think England can do better this time?
Croatia are a top side, as they proved against us in the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign. But we have to make sure we go into this game believing we can beat them. They have some quality players and their coach, Slaven Bilic, is a good motivator.
Will revenge be a motivation for the England boys after you lost twice to Croatia in the Euro qualifiers?
Totally. All players like to get their own back on a team whoíve beaten them and weíll be no different going to Croatia. The game comes early in the qualifying campaign, so it may not be decisive, but we have to go there and perform better than we did in the Euros.
Do you personally feel you can still do a job for England?
Iíve always said Iíll never retire from international football and thatís still my position. Pulling on that shirt means so much to me. I believe I have something to offer, but itís not up to me whether I play. Mr Capello will make that decision and I have great respect for his judgement.
Tell us about Fabio Capello. What makes him tick?
Heís a winner, simple as that. And he expects everyone around him to be a winner as well. If youíre not with him, heís quick to move on without you and itís a policy thatís worked well for him during his career. All the players look up to him and there arenít too many like him left in the game. Sir Alex Ferguson has the same sort of respect.
Pletikosa #1, Simunic #3, R Kovac #4, Corluka #5, Pranjic #6, Rakitic #7, N Kovac #10 (Pokrivac 62 mins - #13), Srna #11, Modric #14, Petric #9 (Knezevic 56 mins - #15), Olic (Mandzukic 73 mins - #8).
Subs Not Used: Runje #12, Krizanac #2, Leko #16, Klasnic #17.
James #1, Brown #2, Terry #6 - Captain (Upson 88 mins - #14), Ferdinand #5, A Cole #3, Lampard #8, Barry #4, J Cole #11 (Jenas 55 mins - #16), Walcott #7 (Beckham 84 mins - #17), Rooney #10, Heskey #9.
Subs Not Used: Robinson #12, Johnson #13, Downing #15, Defoe #18. (Full Squad)
Croatia Goal: Mandzukic (78 mins)
England Goals: Walcott (26, 59 & 82 mins), Rooney (63 mins)
Croatia Dismissal: R Kovac (53 mins)
Croatia Cautions: Simunic (40 mins), Srna (47 mins)
England Caution: Heskey (61 mins)
Referee: Lubos Michel (Slovakia)