THEO FIRES UP FAB'S HEROES; Cole Axed: Robert Kovac's Elbow Connects with Joe Cole, Which Resulted in the England Man Going off Injured and Kovac Being Sent off You Beauty: Walcott Watches His First-Half Effort Go in at the Far Post in with a Shout: Capello Barks Instructions, as CroatIa's Night Was Summed Up by the Dismissal of No 4 Robert Kovac (Left) -
Byline: MATT LAWTON
CROATIA 1 ENGLAND 4
NOT for the first time yesterday, the end of the world was averted.
There was no large black hole waiting for Fabio Capello, no sense that the aura surrounding England's new manager had disappeared with a rather large bang.
On the contrary, it felt like England had finally woken to the dawn of a bright new era and that in Capello, the FA had found someone who can indeed guide England out of the darkness and on to South Africa and the next World Cup.
Capello had the courage to select Theo Walcott in a role so long occupied by David Beckham and my, how that gamble paid off. Not only in the form of three quite brilliant goals for the precociously gifted young winger England's first competitive hat-trick since Michael Owen's that night in Munich seven years ago but in the manner in which he terrorised a Croatia side that, until last night, had never lost a qualifier on home soil.
Not since Wayne Rooney burst on to the international scene has watching England been this exciting.
Not since Rooney then followed that fine debut with those two goals against Croatia at Euro 2004 has there been such a sense of optimism and ambition. If only more people could have seen this on television.
Walcott struck at the end of a difficult first 25 minutes for Capello's side and suddenly confidence once again surged through English veins. Their self-belief returned, as did their composure.
They still needed to defend for their lives and in John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, as well as the tire- less Emile Heskey, Capello discovered players who do possess the spirit he has been demanding.
Their cohesion and collective will reduced Croatia from the fifth best side on the planet to a cynical mess.
They tried to take out Walcott off the ball and ended Joe Cole's night with an elbow from Robert Kovac that resulted in a red card. But they were punished again in the 59th minute when the wonderful Walcott struck his second and a revitalised Rooney followed that with his first international goal in 11 months to crown a fine individual display.
After insisting he had used a 4-3-2-1 formation against the Czech Republic last month with this game very much in mind, Capello tore up that particular plan and reverted to good old 4-4-2, with Heskey as partner to Rooney and no place for Beckham.
The Croats did look dangerous, and a good deal more fluent than their opponents, at the start.
England's early opportunities amounted to a poorly struck freekick from Frank Lampard and a terrific ball from the Chelsea midfielder of which Walcott failed to make use.
There were more anxious moments for England at the opposite end. The sight of James dropping a corner, albeit after colliding with Robert Kovac, was a concern, as was the sight of Ivica Olic skipping past Ashley Cole, who appeared to be struggling.
How relieved Capello must have been to have Rio Ferdinand back in his defence.
As well as passing with great precision, the Croats displayed a real sense of urgency. They applied severe pressure when England had possession, often winning the ball back all too easily. Certain England players were performing well. Lampard was at times impressive and so was Wes Brown. But Croatia looked so superior technically, even if they were a tad lucky not to concede a penalty when Josip Simunic pulled down the advancing Heskey. Lubos Michel, the Slovakian referee, was probably just about right to give the home side the benefit of the doubt.
There was no doubt about what then followed, however a goal for England's young new star.
Seizing on a Croatian mistake when an attempted clearance from Danjiel Pranjic struck Robert Kovac, England's forwards were impressive with the speed of their execution. One quick pass from Rooney and Walcott unleashed a shot that perhaps should have been saved by Stipe Pletikosa but finished in the back of the net. …