It may only be one victory but England’s comprehensive beating of Croatia on Wednesday night could represent a dramatic turn in fortunes for the famous footballers who for so long have failed miserably to live up to their nations’ expectations.
Not quite good enough under Sven Goran Eriksson, an absolute shambles under Steve McClaren, and now it is Fabio Capello’s turn to mark his philosophies on England. The five friendlies in which he had taken charge of before the World Cup qualifying campaign began on Saturday were hardly encouraging, and the weekend’s laboured win over the minnows of Andorra hardly restored confidence. But who cares now?
The fixture in Zagreb had been pin-pointed as the pivotal and most challenging moment in the group long ago, so to go there and claim all three points is some achievement. And considering that Croatia had never lost a competitive game in their homeland previous to Wednesday’s annialation, England’s 4-1 win was quite extraordinary. How often have we been able to say that in the last five years?
The last triumph of such magnitude for England was way back in 2001 under Eriksson, when Michael Owen scored a memorable hat-trick in a 5-1 victory over the Germans in their own back garden. And just like Capello is now, Eriksson was in the early days of his era as England manager. Capello must be careful not to let his team fade to much lower heights like the Swede did before him.
But before worrying about the future, England’s players and fans are surely allowed some time to celebrate such an emphatic win over such talented opposition. England’s win in Munich seven years ago may have been by a bigger margin, and arguably against a better side, but I would argue that Wednesday’s win is more significant for England.
If England had lost, and even worse lost whilst playing badly, then confidence would have been on an all-time low going into the games next month against Kazakhstan and Belarus. Capello would have been doubted as the right man for the job, and the players would once more have been slated for underachieving to such extremes. Questions would be raised again about the quality of our academies and youth set-ups, just like on all the other occasions England’s footballers have failed in the past few years.
To win in Croatia though, a country ranked fifth best in the world, blows all of those fears out of the window, for now anyway. But it is much less likely now that they will return in this qualifying campaign at least, because England’s players are now fully trusting of their manager’s methods, are brimming with confidence and have the nation behind them. This will all ultimately result in fewer nerves. Fear of defeat has plagued England’s stars for so long, but finally those worries have been banished.
It has taken a while, but at last England are the country that have made the rest of the world stand up and take notice. Spain, Russia, Turkey and Croatia themselves have all had their moment in the limelight this past summer, but on Wednesday it was England’s turn. Recognition has to be earned though, and Capello’s warriors certainly did that in Zagreb.
In fact, determination has never really been an issue with this set of players. What has been though is the quality of the football they play. Too one-dimensional, too rigid, too static and too unimaginative – it has been just so easy for the opposition at times in the past. Some of Europe’s second rate nations like Czech Republic and Switzerland played their way around England’s statues, but finally against Croatia the rut ended.
Walcott was always a major threat on the right-hand side of midfield, and his three goals were all taken magnificently, especially for a 19-year old who only found out he was playing ten minutes before stepping onto the team coach. Lampard had his best game for England in over two years in central midfield, whilst his partner Gareth Barry marked Luka Modric out of the game once his early jitters had died down. Terry and Ferdinand were solid at the back, and it was probably a good job they were because David James didn’t look too secure in goal from some dangerous corners early on.
But possibly the most heartening contribution for England fans was that of Wayne Rooney. Even if he had not scored the third goal of the rout he would be receiving praise from all corners. He was magnificent. About time he put in a good performance some might say, but at least we had our old “Wazza” back showing glimpses of the form he produced at Euro 2004.
So many individuals who had underperformed in the past found their best form again, and this added up to a brilliant collective showing that Croatia could not live with. Walcott took the headlines, but this victory was very much a team one.
Total optimism cannot of course be based on just ninety minutes worth of football, but much regained confidence can be. If Capello’s squad of stars continue to actually perform like the title they were given years ago, then England could yet challenge in South Africa in two years time. At least they have renewed hope.