So, I’m expecting Capello to be knighted before the week is out. The English sure love their revenge.
If it’s too good to be true, chances are it is.
I’m hoping and praying the English media won’t get carried away with themselves, but I know without even looking that they will. I actually almost feel bad for Theo Walcott; scoring a hat-trick in Croatia in an amazing feat, but the hype he’ll get and pressure he’ll be under are going to be absurd.
Look, this is football. This game hinges on moments that could go either way. England should be very, very proud of their effort tonight, but it’d be a mistake to assume that Capello’s finally gotten through to the players and worked his wonders. Because I promise you we’ll see the same England that struggled against Andorra last Saturday sometime in the future.
But yes, this certainly was an improvement (uh duh, look at the scoreline). England finally didn’t look frightened stepping out on the Maksimir pitch. Aside from a dangerous 5-10 minutes early on, the away side matched the hosts step for step. And during England’s sketchy period, Heskey could have had a penalty and Walcott opened the scoring, in the 26th after a misplaced clearance fell to him on the right.
England looked likely to hold on for a win even before Robert Kovac’s straight red card for an elbow on Joe Cole seven minutes after the break. In real time, I was surprised Kovac saw red, but in replays (and with the amount of blood spurting from Cole’s head), Lubos Michel made the right decision.
After the red card, Croatia was boned. England scored twice in less than 15 minutes, at a ground where Croatia’s never lost. First, Walcott scored a second that was an absolute peach, with excellent buildup outside the box between Heskey and Rooney before Rooney's layoff to Walcott, who was in a similar position to where he scored the first. Not much later, Rooney finally returned to the scoresheet in an England shirt after Jenas got down the left and pulled it back for the striker.
The only reason Croatia tallied one was because Terry was clearly fouled in the buildup before Croatia nicely countered down the pitch, with the substitute Mandzukic slotting past James in the 78th. But four minutes after that, Walcott stunningly sealed a hat-trick as Rooney once again put the 19-year-old in on goal.
Despite my surprise, and my belief this performance isn’t going to become standard fare, I have to say that Capello got his tactics spot on. England was adventurous from the whistle, Heskey and Rooney was the right pairing up front, Walcott (obviously) was influential on the right, Joe Cole over Stuart Downing is a no-brainer, and Lampard and Barry were actually dominant in midfield. It takes a ballsy manager to start Walcott over Beckham in a place like Zagreb, and it sure paid off.
Despite Walcott’s feat, Rooney’s got a shout for man of the match, linking up play excellently, two assists, and scoring his first goal for England in almost a year. Even if he is a bloody Manc.
I can’t help but see the parallels between today and the 5-1 massacre in Munich in 2001, the first time England beat Germany in Germany. The only difference is an Arsenal player got the hat-trick instead of a Liverpudlian. But like that night, everything was perfect tonight, everything went England’s way. It’s lovely when that happens, but it doesn’t happen often.
It’s still exceptionally early in qualification, but this puts England in a stellar position. Not only with six points from six, not only because they beat their main rivals on the road, but also because of the damage this will do to Croatia’s goal difference (and the benefits to England’s).
But if I were a betting man, I’d put money on Croatia to win at Wembley in a year’s time. Ah, pessimism. I love following England.