Craig Brown: 'Boy king' puts on command performance

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The Independent Football

England extended the parameters of patriotism last night with another pulsating performance from the Goodison prodigy.

With every justification, the large battalion of fans from these shores danced and sang the evening away and applauded the boy king. Not even the disappointment of conceding an early goal could derail Sven's men, who were thoroughly assured throughout. There was no hold-what-you-have syndrome last night, even at the outset when a draw would have sufficed.

With all the emphasis on defending set-pieces, it was worrying that the England captain, David Beckham, should have conceded two needless free-kicks in the early part of the game. From the first of these, in the fifth minute, David James, who overall had a fine match, made a great save from Ashley Cole's miscued clearance. But the ball broke to Niko Kovac, who stunned the tanned hordes by putting Croatia ahead.

Even when Igor Tudor headed a great second goal, again from a free-kick taken by substitute Darijo Srna, there was never any doubt that England, by now unburdened of any pressure, would triumph.

By this time, the man - sorry, boy - of the moment had been replaced to a tumultuous ovation. Rampant Wayne Rooney, the teenage Scouser with exceptional talent, had scored a brilliant second, having been put through one-on-one with Croatia's goalkeeper Tomsislav Butina. However, he was taken off to protect him from a potential second yellow card in the tournament and to preserve him for Thursday's quarter-final with Portugal.

His subtle side-foot finish from a precision through-pass was the hallmark of a vibrant veteran, not a youngster who has scored nine times in 16 internationals.

Wayne's wonderful first on the stroke of half-time - the one which put his side deservedly ahead for the first time - was a brilliant 20-yard, right-foot effort, cleverly set up by the unselfish Michael Owen and Paul Scholes.

Prior to that, the midfield reshuffle that I recommended yesterday, putting Steven Gerrard wide on the left and Scholes in a central position, brought about the vital equaliser.

No one deserved his first goal for three years and 30 games more than Scholes, a slick headed effort following fine work by the unfairly maligned Owen.

While his striking colleague receives plenty plaudits, Rooney's potency would be diminished were it not for the play of his team-mate, Owen. Whose superbly weighted pass put Rooney through for his second goal? The Liverpool striker, very unfortunate himself with a deft chip on to the top of the net, has been the creator of vital goals in England's last two matches. How he deserves one of his own.

In a compelling, exhilarating match, Croatia made a fine contribution. Luckily for England, their defensive errors were not fatal. It was difficult to fault any individual at the back, where yet again Gary Neville was outstanding.

The midfield, too, is blossoming with every outing, none more so than Frank Lampard who, like Scholes, thoroughly deserved to be on the scoresheet. His fine left-foot drive, when given oceans of space, sealed the night for England, who must now anticipate a quarter-final with the host nation with great optimism.

The fact that they have one day's less rest than Portugal will be a major test for the rest-and-recreation procedure prescribed by the England medical team. Nevertheless, nothing gives players more energy than a victory, particularly a decisive one, coming from behind as was the case in the Estadio da Luz yesterday.

It was a match in which the referee was never seen, which given that the official was the commanding, unmistakable presence of Pierluigi Collina, who may be coming to the Premiership next season, was some achievement. To do this in a do-or-die game is the mark of a great referee. He was anonymous, which says everything. Like the entire English side, Collina enjoyed a superb evening.

Again the headlines this morning will be all about Rooney. The comparisons with Paul Gascoigne are obvious, but I am sure that the troubles that have assailed the prodigies in the past will not be allowed to impact on Rooney's heroics. David Moyes, his manager at Everton, and Eriksson will see to that.

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