(AFP) – Sep 10, 2008
ZAGREB (AFP) — Theo Walcott scored a fairytale hat-trick as England came through their first major test under Fabio Capello in scintillating fashion with a 4-1 win over a Croatia side never before beaten at home in a competitive international.
England's Italian boss labelled the final scoreline "incredible" and with good reason.
Arsenal teenager Walcott's first three international goals were sandwiched around Wayne Rooney's first in almost a year as England claimed revenge for the home-and-away defeats by the Croatians which destroyed their chances of reaching Euro 2008.
"There were 11 stars, the whole team were stars out there," said a modest Walcott as a previously much-criticised England made it two wins out of two in World Cup qualifiers after a 2-0 victory over minnows Andorra.
Substitute Mario Mandzukic scored Croatia's goal. But, by that stage, Slaven Bilic's side were trailing 3-0 and had given up any hope of extending a 35-match unbeaten run in European and World Cup qualifiers that had stretched back to the country's emergence from the ruins of the old Yugoslavia.
The last time an England side appeared at the Maksimir Stadium, an untried, untested 3-5-2 formation had unravelled and succumbed to a 2-0 defeat that, with hindsight, marked the beginning of the end of Steve McClaren's reign as manager.
His Italian successor was never likely to embark on a similar tactical gamble, opting for a textbook 4-4-2 that, by the end of the night, fully vindicated his decision to leave David Beckham on the bench and grant Walcott his second international start on the right flank.
"Credit to the manager for that, credit to Theo for stepping up to the challenge," said England captain John Terry.
"In the first 10 minutes of the Andorra game Theo set that alight and caused a lot of problems," Chelsea centre-half Terry added. "When he is on the teamsheet, any defender will be petrified."
Capello, asked about the "secret" of England's victory, replied: "The secret is that we stayed 10 days together and today we played with a lot of confidence, without fear.
"I know the players and I know what is possible. Today we played like we train. This is just the start. The score is incredible.
"Usually when England play away, they don't play with courage but this time they did."
Capello added: "Theo is young, it's a good moment for him and I'm very happy. He's so fast. I had to chose one out of two (Walcott and Beckham) and this time I chose right."
The early signs were far from encouraging for England and within two minutes of the start Danijel Pranjic had tested David James with a fierce drive from Mladen Petric's lay-off.
Capello would have been equally relieved to see Vedran Corluka fire into the sidenetting after James dropped a corner from the left.
England were hanging on desperately at the back but one of the rare counter-attacks they managed to muster might easily have resulted in a penalty, Josip Simunic appearing to bundle Emile Heskey to the ground as the forward attempted to connect with Walcott's volleyed cross.
Minutes later, England were in front, thanks to a mix-up in the heart of the Croatian defence. Pranjic's attempt to find touch clattered into Robert Kovac and sent the ball into Walcott's path to the right of the goalmouth.
The teenager's initial touches had not all been far from assured. But he was a model of composure as he took a touch before directing a low drive towards the far corner that Stipe Pletikosa got a hand too but could not keep out.
Simunic had a let-off at the start of the second half after tripping Rooney on the edge of the area but referee Lubos Michel was left with no option but to finally brandish a red when Robert Kovac left Joe Cole reeling with a vicious challenge from behind soon afterwards.
England exploited the numerical advantage brilliantly. Cutting in from the inside left channel, Rooney combined deftly with Heskey on the edge of the area before laying the ball wide to Walcott.
From almost the same position as he had scored the opener, the 19-year-old drilled another low drive past Pletikosa.
"The first two (goals) were very similar. I tend to cross things a lot so I thought I'd be a bit more greedy," Walcott explained.
Croatia were a beaten side and Rooney's workrate was rewarded when he was able to drift unchecked into the penalty area and side-foot substitute Jermaine Jenas's outside-of-the-boot pass into the corner of the net.
"Tonight there was a bit of revenge and this was a great result," said Rooney. "Theo was brilliant. He offers something a bit different and he's probably the quickest I've seen."
Mandzukic salvaged a modicum of pride for Croatia but England were to have the final word thanks to the superb first-touch control and instinctive pass from Rooney that sent Walcott clear to complete his hat-trick.
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