Theo Walcott grabbed a stunning hat-trick as England heroically overcame
the hostility of Maksimir Stadium to end in style Croatia's unbeaten record in
The Arsenal teenager starred as the Capello's quest for World Cup
qualification began in earnest.
Then just for good measure Wayne Rooney finally found the net for the Three
Lions as Slaven Bilic's side finished in a demoralised state after the 53rd
minute sending-off of Robert Kovac.
All Croatia could manage in reply in this group six clash was a late
consolation effort from substitute Mario Mandzukic.
It was all so different to two years ago in the same stadium, when then England
coach Steve McClaren opted for an ill-fated 3-5-2 formation and saw his side
lose 2-0 in a Euro 2008 qualifier.
But England appear a different animal under Capello and, although this was only
the second step on the long road to the 2010 finals in South Africa, the signs
are encouraging after one of their most convincing displays in living memory.
Capello showed positive intent with the line-up he sent out in the Maksimir
Stadium and his players backed him up with a performance of grit and commitment
harnessed to their attacking abilities.
Walcott will attract all the headlines and rightly so more than two years after
being the shock inclusion in Sven-Goran Eriksson's 2006 World Cup squad.
He only made his full debut for his country in Saturday's 2-0 win over Andorra
in Barcelona but did enough to again keep Beckham on the bench until the closing
But he showed great composure in netting England's first competitive hat-trick
since Michael Owen's treble against Germany in Munich seven years ago in another
World Cup qualifier.
Now a question mark will inevitably hang over whether the 33-year-old Beckham
will start another game for his country after this Walcott show.
Capello opted not to man-mark midfield play-maker Luka Modric and the Tottenham
player saw plenty of the ball during the early stages as the focal point of his
David James needed two attempts to grasp a shot drilled straight at him by
Danijel Pranjic and then failed to hold on to a deep corner from Darijo Srna and
would have been relieved to see Vedran Corluka drill the loose ball into the
The pressure steadily mounted on England although resolute defending denied the
home side any clear-cut opportunities.
The visitors went ahead through Walcott in the 26th minute - but they were
given a helping hand by the Croatian defence.
Pranjic's clearance rebounding off Josip Simunic into the path of Walcott but
the teenager made the most of his fortune as he drilled a fierce low shot across
Stipe Pletikosa into the corner of the net.
Walcott could have added a second from a similar position soon afterwards but
this time Pletikosa was able to tip his effort around the post.
Mladen Petric had a fierce low drive blocked but the Croatians failed to cause
any major problems in the opening 45 minutes.
And they became increasingly wary of the pace of Walcott who was cynically sent
crashing to the ground off the ball by Simunic after one lightning run - a
challenge which earned him a 38th minute yellow card.
England looked composed and Pletikosa did well to get his body behind a low,
skimming free-kick from Frank Lampard.
Then after 53 minutes Croatia were reduced to 10 men when Kovac was sent off
for an aerial challenge which left Joe Cole bloodied - and replaced by Jermaine
England almost instantly made their numerical advantage count - with Walcott
striking for the second time.
Heskey and Rooney were involved in the build-up before the overlapping Walcott
had time to pick his spot and send a low shot across Pletikosa, mirroring his
effort for the first goal.
England were now rampant and in the 63rd minute Rooney ended his 11 month
international scoring drought.
Ashley Cole won the ball off Srna, picked out the run of Jenas and his low
cross from the left flank was clinically despatched by the Manchester United
Lampard had an effort ruled out for offside before Mandzukic beat James from
close range with 12 minutes remaining.
But Walcott ended any hopes of a late Croatian revival as he collected a Rooney
pass and clipped the ball wide of Pletikosa for his hat-trick.