James Lawton: Capello's secret? He makes good players believe they can be great

England's most obvious asset lay wider and deeper than individual merit
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The Independent Football

This was an extraordinary England, qualifying for next summer's World Cup finals in a seamless tide of strong and sometimes inspired football.

They had most eye-catchingly Aaron Lennon, who claimed his ticket for South Africa with an alacrity that deeply startled his principal victim, Croat defender Josip Simunic, along with every witness except Usain Bolt. But if there were also some other impressive performances, and not least from the previously embattled Glen Johnson, England's most obvious asset lay wider and deeper then mere individual merit.

Such streams of form come and go and the trick is to make a sense of a team that carries a smack of permanence.

Last night such a force filled the stadium to the point of extinguishing any sense of serious opposition.

It was a confidence that lapped into every corner of England's first-half demolition of a team who, after being exposed twice now to the transformation worked by Fabio Capello, must wonder if their old status as the nemesis of the motherland of football is something to do with an outrageous fantasy rather than traceable history.

Some might say that Capello hasn't done so much. England, after all, not only qualified but managed to meander into the quarter-finals of three major tournaments under Sven Goran Eriksson. It can also be said that the Croatia who so profoundly undermined Capello's predecessor, Steve McClaren, are not what they were, by no means.

Yet we shouldn't be too battle-scarred, too mindful of modern England's ability to betray themselves when major tournaments come to the distillation of the most significant strength, to recognise something else that is equally true. Neither are England what they were. The biggest single separation from their past is that they are plainly a team who learn from game to game, who come into the important matches with the strongest understanding of what they have to do.

It wasn't the same when England failed to inflict themselves on a 10-man Brazil in the nation's best recent chance of winning a World Cup in Japan seven years ago, when in an entire second half of historic opportunity they failed to apply one moment of serious pressure. This could happen again, you might say, because of something in the very fabric of English football. Here last night though there was an increasingly familiar temptation to believe something quite different. It was that Capello, who came here less than two years ago with the most powerful sense that he could exploit power and potential that had laid dormant for so long, has indeed managed not only to find some unsuspected strains of competitive character but also smashed his way through a most self-indulgent culture.

He has pointed England to a new level of performance and when it has mattered, most specifically in this qualifying campaign in Zagreb last year and here last night, such performance has been delivered with extraordinary impact. How has he done it? He does not claim to have involved in the most refined tactics, still less metaphysics.

No, none of that. What he trades in plainly is releasing players from their fears, of making good players grasp the possibility that they might also be great and telling others that if they are not the darlings of the crowd, if they do not always grab the headlines or the cheers, they have certain qualities of strength and heart which he values highly indeed.

Emile Heskey, again, was maybe the supreme example of Capello's willingness to invest in the kind of talent that is rarely guaranteed to light up a great stadium. He was a valuable element in England's early assurance, running at the Croatia defence and providing consistent weight to the pressure so brilliantly authored by Lennon, initially, and then with growing confidence by Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney.

Then, and almost inevitably, he became a warrior touched by more than a hint of sporting tragedy. He missed two good chances that would have put him at the heart of this striking English arrival in the finals of the world's greatest tournament.

Naturally, the cameras switched to Jermain Defoe, the striker of searing form who so many believe should have started the game in Heskey's place. But then Capello is a man who eschews photo opportunities as all else he considers extraneous to his central purpose.

Heskey, the big, unglamorous football soldier, stayed on the battlefield until England were three goals clear – and beyond any threat from the team who used to haunt their sleep.

Of course there was so much more to salute on a night when England had every right to believe that the World Cup offers some considerable opportunity next summer. Croatia became progressively enfeebled and could not rally to the slight hope engendered by Eduardo da Silva's goal against the tide of English power.

Gerrard, who scored England's second goal with superb authority after a brilliant run by Lennon, was achieving moments of giant status long before the end. Rooney created one goal with an absolute certainty of touch – and then scored one as though he was merely picking a book off a library shelf, dusting it down, and then returning to its place.

Johnson, seen as a point of weakness before the game, produced some evidence of powerful defence before growing into a second-half performance which provided hints of why Capello puts so much faith in his future. Frank Lampard was insistent in his ambition and his Chelsea team-mate Ashley Cole retains a touch that currently puts him among the world's elite defenders.

There is considerable room this morning for the itemisation of an England performance which crowned an impressive qualifying campaign – and brought serious suggestion that it might just lead to something of more lasting significance when the action moves to the high veld next summer. However, much of this is overshadowed by a wonderful generalisation. It is that Capello has indeed made England a real team.