Lennon turns on the style as England crush Croatia

England 5 Croatia 1: Midfielder's marauding display enhances his World Cup prospects as doubles from Lampard and Gerrard confirm qualification
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The Independent Football

Fabio Capello permitted himself the occasional clenched-fist celebration last night but he drew the line at the request for a wave from the England fans. Old Il Capo was not about to get carried away but he did not mind if the rest of us did.

Qualification for the World Cup finals would have been accepted if England had crawled over the threshold against Belarus in the final qualifier next month; instead last night they kicked the door down. Five goals against the Croatia team that ravaged a nation's self-esteem in Euro 2008 qualifying two years ago was a beautiful way of salving the wound. Slaven Bilic called it a humiliation for Croatia and he was not exaggerating.

It was just 22 months since the nation's so-called golden generation of footballers looked like they had checked out of international football forever. Now it turns out that this group of serial under-achievers are up for one more tilt at the biggest prize of all. Eight wins out of eight in qualifying restores respect but let's resist the temptation to get too carried away before South Africa next summer.

If you thought the 4-1 win in Zagreb was good last year, this was even better. Croatia might have been woefully under-strength but you got the feeling that in this kind of form, Aaron Lennon would have been unplayable against anyone. That Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard scored two goals each quite neatly made the point that these two players are not incompatible. There were reasons to be cheerful in abundance.

This is a new England, humbled by the memories of the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign and re-made by Capello from the foundations. There is no guarantee that they will make it past the quarter-finals come next summer but at least you know that a potential failure will not be the result of flawed management. They looked as good as they could be last night, a team that finally seemed to be the sum of its gilded parts.

Capello talked about "the different faces" of his team as they approached this match and there was a difference in everything they did in the early stages. It was, Capello said, "the best 20 minutes" his team has played under his management and for that period you could see the vision he has had for this side, not always obvious in some of the darker moments of the last 21 months.

Special nights such as these require certain ingredients. Rooney and Gerrard were operating on an understanding that was uncanny, some secret Scouse wavelength. Glen Johnson recovered from some early aberrations to have the game of his life. Lennon was the new hero. Only Emile Heskey went back to his bad old Heskey ways with two misses which confirmed that, sadly, he will never be an international goalscorer.

From the moment Lennon first gathered the ball into that trademark, skittering running style you could sense the danger for Croatia. The penalty he won in the sixth minute was so undeniably a penalty that the offending player, Josep Simunic, might as well have put the ball on the spot himself. Lennon flew past Nikola Pokrivac and was running parallel to goal, past Simunic, when the defender took him out at knee height.

It was an electrifying run and the easiest penalty the Spanish referee will ever have to award. Lampard picked the same corner he had dispatched his penalty against Slovenia on Wednesday and beat the Croatian goalkeeper Vedran Runje.

England have scored 31 goals in this qualification campaign at an average of just less than four a match, the best record in European qualification. You do wonder if Spain or Brazil will fall for this high-tempo pressing game in the World Cup finals next summer. Bilic thought that England "definitely" have a chance. As usual he was dignified and composed in defeat.

It was far from the best circumstances for the Croatia manager who was without his first-choice goalkeeper and also missing Luka Modric, Vedran Corluka, Robert Kovac and Ivan Juric. They were a shadow of the side that beat England here in November 2007 and much less of a team than the side England beat 4-1 in Zagreb one year ago.

In the first half Johnson was again a cause for worry. It is not so much his capacity to get caught out of position but his lack of urgency in getting back there that really was concerning. He always seems to play better when he is on the same flank that Capello is standing and, accordingly, he improved immensely after the break, heading away a chance for Eduardo da Silva and making Gerrard's second goal.

England's second goal was a sweet interchange between Rooney and Gerrard before the latter picked out Lennon on the right. It has to be said that the cross Lennon put over was David Beckham-quality in its execution, requiring Gerrard only to come in at the back post and dispatch the ball with a flex of his neck.

Bilic said he was pleased to get in at half-time just two goals down and chiefly he had Heskey to thank for that. First Lennon lost his nerve as Runje came out, only managing a tepid chip which the goalkeeper got a hand to. Then Lennon played in Heskey who shot straight at the goalkeeper. The second chance, from Lampard's pass, Heskey knocked behind him with a bad first touch and collapsed, in classic Heskey-style, as he hit his shot.

Lampard headed the third from Johnson's cross. England's fourth goal was a wonderful piece of opportunism by Rooney who, with the chance to cut the ball back from the goal-line from Gerrard's pass, opted to loop it high to the space at the back post. Right on cue the Liverpool captain arrived there to send his header back over Runje.

Eduardo picked up a consolation after Robert Green had made two good saves but failed to hang onto the second shot from Mario Mandzukic. Then came the fifth, a dreadful sliced clearance from Runje that gave Rooney a virtual open goal. It was like the mistake Scott Carson made for England back in November 2007, an awful occasion that has faded a little further into history after last night.

England (4-2-3-1): Green (West Ham); Johnson (Liverpool), Terry (Chelsea), Upson (West Ham), A Cole (Chelsea); Barry (Manchester City), Lampard (Chelsea); Lennon (Tottenham), Rooney (Manchester United), Gerrard (Liverpool); Heskey (Aston Villa). Substitutes used: Defoe (Tottenham) for Heskey (54), Beckham (LA Galaxy) for Lennon (80), Milner (Aston Villa) for Gerrard (80).

Croatia (4-4-2): Runje (Lens); Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Krizanac (Zenit St Petersburg), Simunic (Hoffenheim), Pranjic (Bayern Munich); Mandzukic (Dinamo Zagreb), Vukojevic (Dynamo Kiev), Pokrivac (Red Bull Salzburg), Kranjcar (Tottenham); Olic (Bayern Munich), Eduardo (Arsenal). Substitutes used: Petric (Hamburg) for Olic (h-t), Rakitic (Schalke) for Pokrivac (h-t), Klasnic (Bolton) for Eduardo (72).

Referee: A Mallenco (Spain).

Booked: England Terry; Croatia Simunic.

Man of the match: Lennon.

Attendance: 87,319.

Man for man marking, by Steve Tongue


Rob Green Becoming England's No 1 by default. Unlucky to be beaten after capable double-save 7/10

Glen Johnson Better in defence except for Croatia goal. Lively as ever going forward and made third goal 6

John Terry Undemanding couple of matches this week for the captain. Close to a set-piece goal 7

Matthew Upson Standing in for Rio Ferdinand again, coped well with Ivica Olic and then Eduardo 7

Ashley Cole Seems to like having Steven Gerrard in front of him. Linked well and solid in defence 6

Gareth Barry Far happier than on Croatia's last visit when he lasted 45 minutes 7

Frank Lampard Six goals in seven games from a more defensive role. Cool penalty settled England down 8

Aaron Lennon What a day in the life of Lennon, amply justifying his place and making first two goals 8

Wayne Rooney Enjoyed space behind Heskey. Some lovely touches and linked well with Lennon 7

Steven Gerrard Came in off his flank to great effect, above all to score with two fine headers 8

Emile Heskey Worked as hard as ever but should have scored from at least one of his first-half chances 6


Jermain Defoe (for Heskey, 59) Must be envious 6; David Beckham (for Lennon, 80) 10-minute cameo n/a; James Milner (for Gerrard, 81) Enthusiastic n/a


Vedran Runje Spoilt his first-half performance of five saves with a howler for the fifth goal 6/10

Dario Srna Captain unhappy as stand-in right-back where he failed to stop Gerrard heading two goals 6

Ivica Krizanac A tough shift in the centre of defence, finding Heskey a handful in the air 5

Josip Simunic Conceded penalty with silly lunge. Once given three yellow cards by referee, just one here 5

Danijel Pranjic No more successful than Pokrivac in controlling the exuberant Aaron Lennon 5

Marijo Mandzukic Livelier than some team-mates wide on right. Put a couple of chances over bar 6

Ognjen Vukojevic Central midfielder never got to grips with powerful England engine room 5

Nikola Pokrivac Started left-back, couldn't cope. Into midfield and then off at half-time 4

Niko Kranjcar Tottenham's new signing restricted to one or two neat passes on the left of midfield 6

Ivica Olic The furthest man forward, made little headway and was replaced at the interval 5

Eduardo da Silva Predictably booed. Quiet first half before moving further forward and scoring 6


Ivan Rakitic (for Pokrivac, 46) Tested Johnson from left 7; Mladen Petric (for Olic, 46) Livened Croatia up 7; Ivan Klasnic (for Eduardo, 73) n/a