England v Croatia: Lessons learned 2 years on
“Outclassed, Outfought, Out-thought”.
This was just one of the headlines that greeted England’s staff and players after their failure to qualify for the European Championships two years ago.
A drenched Steve McClaren looked on from his bomb shelter in the England dugout. The volley of insults rained down on the disgraced England manager.
It was a disastrous qualifying campaign that had culminated in a 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Croatians. McClaren was clearing his desk at the FA headquarters the next day.
The match itself saw a struggling English side lumber over an atrocious Wembley pitch. The team lacked leadership both on and off the pitch.
Captain for the night, Steven Gerrard was largely anonymous. Meanwhile McClaren got his tactics muddled. The result: England suffered.
A cramped midfield provided little support for the lonesome figure of Peter Crouch up front. The defence was more notable for the absentees then the talent on show.
Poor Scott Carson was asked to make his England debut in the crunch clash against the table topping team and his mistake sparked England’s downfall.
Luca Modric produced an ostentatious performance with his creativity overwhelming the England midfield. English football was a shambles. Slaven Bilic’s men and Russia qualified ahead of the three lions. For a team full of Premier League stars, it wasn’t acceptable.
Over two years on and England have enjoyed a renaissance under Italian Fabio Capello.
Out of the 11 players who started on that match at Wembley, only three have a reasonable chance of donning the famous white shirt for next week’s rematch.
Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry will be looking to avenge that defeat in 2007. Under the Italian, Lampard has successfully quelled the boo boys; on the other hand Gerrard has much to prove under Capello; while Barry has cemented his place in the England first eleven.
Capello has settled on a 4-3-3 formation. As is the norm, Wayne Rooney or Emile Heskey will be deployed in the central role up front supported either side by quick attackers. Gerrard, Lampard and Barry make up the midfield trio. In defence Johnson has established himself at right back and is joined by John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole.
The only position still up for debate is between the sticks. Robert Green, Ben Foster and Paul Robinson will all be fighting for the number one spot.
A settled formation has been key to the revival of the national side. Capello has wielded a team which is able to incorporate England’s key players.
The frequent complaints of Rooney being wasted on the wing while Gerrard and Lampard fail to impress in midfield seem a thing of a past. A problem that McClaren failed to overcome. Not Capello.
England already enacted their own revenge in Zagreb a year ago when they demolished Croatia 4-1. It was the precursor to what has been a successful qualifying campaign.
After seven games England enjoy a flawless record as they sit on top of group six with 21 points. Yet the players will be keen to banish all the demons from that miserable night two years ago in front of an expectant Wembley crowd.
Capello will want to sustain the sheen on their qualifying campaign. South Africa beckons.