England's 5-1 hammering of Group Six rivals Croatia not only secured safe passage to South Africa, it also guaranteed the next nine months will be rife with lofty predictions.
Flawless England dare to dream of World Cup glory
England's 5-1 hammering of Group Six rivals Croatia not only secured safe passage to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, it also guaranteed the next nine months will be rife with lofty predictions from their media concerning the tournament-winning credentials of Fabio Capello's side.
On the evidence of their eight flawless qualification showings thus far, England's chances next summer are genuinely realistic. With traditional powerhouses France, Argentina and Portugal struggling to qualify, next summer may represent England's best opportunity since 1966 to lift the trophy. Manager Capello agrees. "If we can keep everyone fit and play with the spirit we showed against Croatia, then we can be real contenders," said the Italian.
"We are one of the best teams in the world and can play against all the sides out there. Expectations will be high in South Africa but we have to play to win it because we are England." Capello, who believes the game's first 20 minutes "were the best we have played throughout qualification" was justifiably content. Braces from Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampardsealed England's win. Gerrard starts wide left nowadays but, in truth, Capello's trust in full-back Ashley Cole - and Gareth Barry's capacity to cover the midfield - means the Liverpool captain has been granted a free role to orchestrate attacks.
It is working. Gerrard linked brilliantly with Wayne Rooney against Croatia and, after Eduardo had netted a consolation to make it 4-1, the Manchester United striker - freed of the defensive shackles he selflessly burdens himself with for his club - restored the four-goal cushion with a late fifth. In truth, it could and should have been more. Emile Heskey, preferred to Jermain Defoe, missed two golden opportunities, while Aaron Lennon shone down England's right wing.
In just the seventh minute, Josip Simunic cynically ended Lennon's mazy run into the box and Lampard dutifully stepped up to dispatch the resulting penalty into the bottom left-hand corner. It was an impressive start by Capello's men and the visitors badly missed the injured Luka Modric's ability to retain possession and launch penetrative thrusts on the counter-attack. Ironically, England's second came on the counter. Heskey released Lennon and he floated an inch-perfect cross to a late-arriving Gerrard at the back post. The midfielder's header back across goal left goalkeeper Vedran Runje stranded.
With Vedran Corluka suspended, England's width and delivery were proving extremely effective. A Glen Johnson foray ended with Lampard glancing home the right-back's cut-back. England were rampant and more followed. Lampard played a clever through ball to Rooney, whose lofted centre seemed to be aimed at no-one, but Gerrard - again arriving late - rose prodigiously to nod home. Rooney ended proceedings from 12 yards out after Runje sliced a clearance into the forward's path.
Although World Cup hyperbole and England are standard following a successful qualification, captain John Terry is staying realistic. "We've got a long way to go to win the whole thing, obviously, but we've qualified and we're there," said the Chelsea defender. Capello has moulded a compact squad flush with game-winning options; picking a first XI to reach, and win, the World Cup final remains his ultimate test.