A requiem for Steve McClaren's tactical innovation, a personal disaster for Paul Robinson. England's players may have thought their premature World Cup exit this summer was the lowest they could go, but that was before last night when they crashed down a few more levels with a performance of incoherence that was crowned by absurdity.
It leaves the young regime of McClaren fragile and embattled after just five games and qualification for Euro 2008 far from a certainty. England could even slip out of Group E's top two places next month, but last night will be remembered for the staggering failure of the 3-5-2 system and Gary Neville's first international goal: a tragic, humiliating affair that rolled into his own net on 69 minutes. It was a horrible night.
The second Croatian goal, from Neville's right foot, was the moment the whole night shifted into focus and could finally be seen for what it was: a match that stands comparison with England's darkest days. Neville's back-pass rolled towards the Tottenham goalkeeper, clipped the divot dug out by his Croatian equivalent Stipe Pletikosa, leapt over Robinson's foot and dribbled in.
The England supporters who chanted for the return of David Beckham and heaped derision on their own players after the match, the painful mea culpa of McClaren on his tactical choices - it was an anguished night for English football. They have not lost 2-0 in a qualifier for an international tournament since defeat to the Netherlands in 1993 and they will be out of the two qualification places if Israel beat Croatia next month.
The 3-5-2 system is in danger of being the shortest-lived tactical experiment in the England football team's history and perhaps the costliest. McClaren has tried to distance himself from the follies of Sven Goran Eriksson, yet even with Terry Venables at his side he now seems to have sidled even closer to them. It took his benighted predecessor almost five years before he lost a qualifier; McClaren has managed that in under three months.
An extraordinary gamble by the England manager, and a result that will shred his credibility. He has five months until the next competitive match against Israel in March and the wait until then will be a burden on a man who guards his reputation so assiduously. The doomsday scenario is failure to qualify for Euro 2008 and, while that is still a very distant prospect, it is a future for English football that would be too awful to contemplate.
Where did they go wrong? This was a night that a team struggling for confidence were forced into an unfamiliar shape and failed to interpret it all game. On the right, Gary Neville was pinned back by the excellent Niko Kranjcar - the Portsmouth winger was switched to the left for that purpose alone. On the left Ashley Cole looked no more confident being asked to do the same and eventually England's threat down either wing was negligible.
As they struggled to retrieve the two-goal deficit, England even turned back to 4-4-2 with Kieran Richardson and Shaun Wright-Phillips on the wings - the 3-5-2 experiment had failed that badly. Wayne Rooney was barely afforded one shot on goal.
Phil Neville had aggravated an injury in the warm-up, leaving England with only six substitutes, a portent for a dreadful night. Gary Neville's natural conservatism forbade him to stray more than a few yards from Kranjcar. It was almost 20 minutes before he pushed forward, a tackle that allowed him to feed the ball into Rooney went some way to restoring his confidence.
Eduardo Da Silva had struck the first shot at Robinson's goal in the eighth minute but it was not until the 23rd that Rio Ferdinand was tricked by Mladen Petric and responded by dragging him down to get booked. That was how jittery England had become at the back, their three-man defence so often becoming a back five. Then John Terry was forced to close down Milan Rapaic on the left. His cross was met by Kranjcar who was stopped by a smart save from Robinson.
For a while it seemed that this was to be the night that the England goalkeeper equalled Gordon Banks' record of seven clean sheets - he was certainly working hard for it. He stopped another Kranjcar shot when Rapaic again broke down the left. The Portsmouth winger was denied a third time on 34 minutes when an effort from the edge of the area was palmed away by Robinson.
The mind was drawn back to McClaren's words before the match about moving the ball forward quickly and it seemed that the formation had achieved anything but that.
The England back line had proved difficult for Croatia to get beyond but slowly they seemed to be prising them open. A Petric header at the back post on 47 minutes forced Robinson to push the ball over the bar.
There was a glimmer of a chance for Rooney in the 54th minute when he took the ball in his stride and rode the challenge of Robert Kovac before hitting his shot over the bar. That was as close as he got before England were finally opened up disastrously.
The pressure from Slaven Bilic's side had come to weigh heavily on England and by the time Croatia won a corner in the 60th minute, McClaren's side had called back everyone. The ball was shakily forced out and then recycled from the left by Niko Kovac. Robinson hesitated and Da Silva got between Terry and Cole to send a looping header over the England goalkeeper. Robinson had not come for the cross and he had found himself disastrously misplaced for the header but much worse lay in wait when Neville's back-pass trickled past him. Banks' record will be safe for some time and England have to wait five months to redeem themselves: in Israel, where the hosts have not lost in three years.
Croatia (4-4-2): Pletikosa (Shakhtar Donetsk); Simic (Milan), R Kovac (Juventus), Simunic (Hertha Berlin), Corluka (Dynamo Zagreb); Rapaic (Standard Liege), N Kovac (Salzburg), Modric (Dynamo Zagreb), Kranjcar (Portsmouth); Eduardo da Silva (Dynamo Zagreb), Petric (Basel). Substitutes used:Leko (Monaco) for Da Silva, 81; Babic (Bayer Leverkusen) for Kranjcar, 88; Olic (CSKA Moscow) for Rapic, 71.
England (3-5-2): Robinson (Tottenham); Ferdinand (Manchester United), Terry (Chelsea), Carragher (Liverpool); G Neville (Manchester United), Carrick (Manchester United), Parker (Newcastle), Lampard (Chelsea), A Cole (Chelsea); Rooney (Manchester United), Crouch (Liverpool). Substitutes used:Defoe (Tottenham) for for Parker, 71; Richardson (Manchester United) for Crouch, 71; Wright-Phillips (Chelsea) for Carragher 71.
Referee: R Rosetti (Italy).
Man for man marking
Paul Robinson 6
Was shaping up to produce a memorable performance with a series of fine saves to keep England afloat. Then came the moment he will never be able to forget.
Jamie Carragher 4
Typically brave header midway through the first period but never looked happy as part of a defensive trio. Sacrificed when 4-4-2 formation was restored.
Rio Ferdinand 3
The new formation was designed to liberate him but Carrick's presence meant he rarely stepped out. Sloppy in possession and unsure in defence. Needlessly booked.
John Terry 3
Looked uncomfortable when drawn into wide areas. Caught under the ball for Da Silva's goal. Lack of defensive organisation also reflects badly on the captain.
Gary Neville 4
Made occasional forays forward but was usually manning the ramparts, with mixed success - the first goal came from his flank. Unlucky to have the own goal against him.
Scott Parker 4
Tough international baptism and it showed. Busy, but never looked like imposing himself on the game. Withdrawn when McClaren went to a midfield four.
Michael Carrick 6
Another display which produced more questions than answers. The talent is there but can England provide the platform to show it? Still passed the ball better than most.
Frank Lampard 5
Typified the team's reluctance to commit themselves in that he worked hard defensively but struggled to threaten in attack. One of too many players lacking form.
Ashley Cole 5
Started brightly and made some strong forward runs. Less sure defensively and outjumped for goal. Battled on despite increasing pain from injury. Booked.
Wayne Rooney 7
There were flickers of his prodigious talent and no one could fault the work rate but he is still below par. Nevertheless came closest to a goal with rising 52nd-minute drive.
Peter Crouch 4
Decent flick-on to create Rooney's chance but otherwise anonymous, in part because of poor service. His substitution was significant, given England were chasing the game.
Jermain Defoe (for Parker, 71 minutes)
Sent on to save the game and had one opportunity when Carrick chipped a clever pass into his path. But his touch was too heavy and Croatia cleared. 5/10
Shaun Wright-Phillips (for Carragher, 71 minutes)
Added to the fray as McClaren went for broke. Won a corner but his pace was otherwise easily handled by Croatia. 5/10
Kieran Richardson (for Crouch, 71 minutes)
Provided balance on the left, but little else, after switch to 4-4-2. His double on debut in Chicago seems a lot further away than 5,000 miles and 16 months. 5/10
Substitutes not used: Kirkland (gk), Bent, Jenas.Reuse content