There was a little history to this fixture too, as just two years ago England were again lining up against Croatia in a match that, if they had won it, would have meant they had qualified for the European Championships of 2008. In a bizarre performance that night, England somehow contrived to slip to a 3-2 defeat and hence failed to qualify for a major tournament for the first time in 14 years. That result also led to the sacking of manager Steve McClaren who was later replaced by Italian Fabio Capello. So, last night was an opportunity to put things right and re-establish England as a major force in world football.
And the match could not have gone any more smoothly, from an English point of view. The team went ahead after just 8 minutes when Aaron Lennon was tripped in the penalty box and Frank Lampard smacked home the resulting penalty. Then, just 10 minutes later, it was Lennon again who played a crucial role, this time providing the inch perfect cross for Steven Gerrard to power home a header to make the score 2-0. Although the score remained the same for the rest of the first half, England were dominating the play and the result was already looking a foregone conclusion. The second half saw England score another three goals (Lampard again, Gerrard again and Wayne Rooney). David Beckham made a cameo appearance to notch up his 114th International cap. The only blot on an otherwise flawless performance was a momentary lapse in the England defence, allowing Croatia to score. But a resounding 5-1 victory meant that England have now qualified in some style for next year’s World Cup Finals, with two qualifying group matches still left to play. It is the first time ever that the national team have qualified so early for a World Cup, and they have scored 31 goals on their way to doing so – more than any other European team.
So, now the countdown to June 11th really starts, when the world’s best football teams will gather again to battle it out to become World Champions. England have won the World Cup just once before – in 1966, before I was born. Every four years, when the World Cup rolls around again, the expectation that England might just do it this time is ramped up, and each time they fail to live up to that expectation – more often than not going out at the quarter-final stage. But could this time be THE time? Capello has got the team playing impressively, and he is a manager with a proven track record. I am not going to predict an England win, as there are teams such as Spain and Brazil who have much stronger claims to be favourites for the crown. But this qualifying campaign has renewed belief in the national team and given me, and several million other long-suffering England fans, that little bit of optimism that means we dare to dream once again.
Just 273 days to go! Yay!