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England beats Croatia, 5-1, to qualify for 2010 World Cup

David Beckham makes only a token appearance for England in the last 10 minutes of the game.

September 10, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

LONDON — As the pubs and sports bars of central London heaved with patrons Wednesday night, the England-raised lads on the national soccer team heaved with a soaring excellence up north at Wembley Stadium.

England's players made yard mulch of Croatia, 5-1, with two goals each from Frank Lampard and Steve Gerrard, to qualify for South Africa's World Cup finals next year, and what also promises to be one of the rowdier English summers come 2010.

On Wednesday, England's team resembled some frightful, beautiful storm as it finished stamping out the residue of some bad vibes from 22 months ago.

On that November night in 2007, Croatia beat England, 3-2, to ensure that the European championship of 2008 would proceed without the nation of the game's birthplace. But on Wednesday, roughly the same batch of England players, with a key addition here and there, managed to place big buzz squarely in the forecast for next June.

Twenty-two months ago, it rained remorselessly as England lost to Croatia. England's manager was lampooned for using a huge umbrella and fired the next morning.

The England team looked feckless, listless and direction-less, and the first question to Manager Steve McClaren went roughly like this: "Have you resigned yet?"

Now, only 22 months ahead, the night air felt sweet. A sliver of Croatian fans looked utterly miserable. England's manager, Fabio Capello, even smiled occasionally witnessing a game he would label England's "best" in his tenure. The England team has won all eight of its World Cup qualifying matches under the Italian hired to replace McClaren, and it played the eighth with a ferocious energy that ravaged the visitors, especially in the form of the fleet Aaron Lennon.

And that geezer David Beckham, one of Lennon's alleged competitors for playing time on that right side, clapped proficiently from his seat, smiled a lot and made an 80th-minute cameo in Wednesday's game. After all the flying and all the doubting, it looks as if Beckham's protracted career might just have a fourth World Cup act, even if that act might be as a spare part.

England is bunched in a World Cup qualifying group with Croatia, a team that beat it twice in bad-dream scenarios during the European qualifying of two years ago. Now England has outscored that ex-nemesis 9-2 in two meetings. It has outscored its Group Six counterparts 31-5 in eight matches, with two meaningless games remaining.

It has promised that there'll be one of the darndest fusses you ever saw as the reviewers coo over England's 5-1 victory. The hunger stems not only from the fact that England hasn't won the World Cup since its lone title in 1966, but also from its inability to reach another final, while seeing only one semifinal in all that time.

If England's fans can muster hope after all that -- and, oh, they can -- some of it can come from the youthful speed that has shredded second-place Croatia in both matches. Just as 20-year-old Theo Walcott of Arsenal ran around and hoarded three goals in Zagreb, the 22-year-old Lennon of Tottenham Hotspur meant constant trouble Wednesday for a Croatian team that isn't quite what it was 22 months ago.

Lennon went lashing across the box in the seventh minute, drawing a penalty against Josip Simunic that Lampard converted. Lennon also went tearing up the right side in the 18th minute, sending a pretty cross to Gerrard, who headed it past a sprawling goalkeeper Vedran Runje. Pretty soon, Runje seemed to splay around everywhere as England pelted him in a first half with a 2-0 score and a 5-0 look.

No wonder that well after Glen Johnson's beauty to Lampard for a header made it 3-0, and Wayne Rooney's cross for Gerrard's header made it 4-0, and as England goalkeeper Robert Green never faced a shot on target until the 70th minute, Runje finally went a bit discombobulated. His shanked clearance allowed Rooney to score the final goal in the 77th minute, just before Beckham and others came in to clean up.

As mastodons like France, Argentina and Portugal still fret and bicker and strain to qualify, England had become one of 10 teams booked for Africa's first World Cup -- and it has become one of the loudest.

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chuck.culpepper@yahoo.com

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