England march on promised land

England 4 Croatia 2
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The Independent Online

England, playing with their customary disregard for the nerves of their supporters, finally reached the knock-out stages of the European Championship finals last night, carried to the promised land on the broad shoulders of their teenage tiro.

England, playing with their customary disregard for the nerves of their supporters, finally reached the knock-out stages of the European Championship finals last night, carried to the promised land on the broad shoulders of their teenage tiro.

In normal circumstances Paul Scholes' first international goal since William Hague still led Her Majesty's Opposition ­ in June 2001 ­ would be the focus of their victory, but Wayne Rooney's brilliant light casts all in shadow. Yesterday he followed Scholes' opener, which he himself had made, with two more expertly taken goals.

Croatia, who had led after just five minutes through Niko Kovac, briefly worried England when Igor Tudor's goal evoked memories of the French nightmare, but Frank Lampard scored a fourth to seal a monumental quarter-final meeting with the hosts, Portugal, back here at the Estadio da Luz on Thursday.

That will bring a reunion with Luiz Felipe Scolari, whose Brazilian team put England out of the World Cup at the same stage two years ago. Sven Goran Eriksson will feel he has a good chance of revenge after a performance which showed why England can go all the way in this tournament.

However, it also revealed why every opponent will fancy their chances of halting their progress. Both Croatian goals came from set-piece situations and England looked likely to concede whenever their opponents had a free-kick.

On the credit side, their attacking exuberance, best expressed by Rooney but also evident in the play of Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole, should trouble any opposition. There is a weakness in Michael Owen's struggle for goals, but his all-round play was valuable and he was involved in three of the goals.

Barring injury, and everyone reported fit last night, Eriksson can thus be expected to field an unchanged side against Portugal, as he did last night.

The Croats, in a strange move given they had to win, brought in Boris Zivkovic, once of Portsmouth, for Nenad Bjelica and played the defender in midfield.

Perversely, his immediate impact was in attack. David Beckham conceded a free-kick on the left, a bad mistake given England's vulnerability from the dead-ball. The position was perfect for Milan Rapaic to swing in a left-footed cross which Cole, under heavy pressure from Zivkovic, inadvertently diverted goalwards. David James reacted well to parry but Niko Kovac, the elder of the team's German-born brothers, reacted ahead of Terry to stab the ball in.

England's initial reply was bright with Scholes, Lampard and Gerrard all exercising Tomislav Butina but the need to take the game to Croatia left them open to counter-attacks and James had to make watchful saves from Tomo Sokota and Dado Prso.

England's response seemed to have blown out but they stunned Croatia with a swift double strike before the interval. On 40 minutes Lampard filtered a pass through to Owen and although Butina blocked his unconvincing shot, the ball looped up for Rooney. Showing extraordinary presence of mind, he headed over the goalkeeper to Scholes, who stooped to head in deftly.

As the half moved into injury-time Owen picked up the ball on the halfway line, advanced then waited to exchange passes with Scholes. Rooney was able to move up unnoticed by all but Scholes, who laid the ball square to him. From 25 yards out he crashed in a shot which Butina could only help into the net.

In extremis Otto Baric gave his team a more attacking imprint, Portsmouth's Ivica Mornar replacing Robert Kovac, who, it transpired, had been injured in the warm-up. Mornar went on the right as Croatia looked not so much to attack Cole as to occupy him. The Arsenal defender was having his best game for England, defending resolutely and attacking boldly.

His sallies were rationed as England drew back to protect a lead which ought to have been increased when Rooney released Owen with another pass of sublime maturity. Owen was clear, 35 yards out, with only the goalkeeper to beat. He established his reputation in such situations, but is not at present the player of yore. His approach was hesitant and so was his finish, a delicate chip when he usually thumps it. The ball landed agonisingly on the roof of the net.

Croatia took fresh heart from their reprieve. Ivica Olic, the CSKA Moscow striker who was allowed to play despite failing a drugs test this week, came on to deliver a left-wing cross which begged to be tapped in by a trio of strikers. All missed.

James then made a brave save from Mornar before England looked to have settled the match with a third goal. It came, of course, from You-Know-Who. Owen rolled an astute pass into his path 40 yards out. Rooney advanced confidently, dummied the keeper, and scored.

England looked home and hosed. Off came Rooney, to a hero's acclaim. On came Ledley King to play at the base of a diamond. Celebration and relaxation were, though, premature. Three minutes after Rooney's departure Tudor, from Darijo Srna's free-kick, headed Croatia back in touch. Suddenly the 40,000 Englishmen in the stadium, especially the 11 on the pitch, remembered last Sunday and the collapse against France. Not again. Surely not.

No. Lampard, building on good work by Darius Vassell and Beckham, emphatically dispelled the demons building in English minds as he danced through flimsy cover to send a neat shot past Butina and England into the quarter-finals.

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