Walcott Hat Trick Stuns Croatia

Croatia 1 England 4 A hat trick from Theo Walcott and a goal from Wayne Rooney secured the points for England in Zagreb. Croatia, who had Robert Kovac sent off, pulled one back through substitute Mandzukic, but the result condemned Slaven Bilic's side to their first ever home defeat in qualifying. The match in Zagreb saw Fabio Capello ring the changes from the side that toiled against Andorra. Out went Glen Johnson, Stewart Downing, Joleon Lescott and Jermain Defoe and in came Wes Brown, Rio Ferdinand, Emile Heskey and Joe Cole. However, most notable of all was the retention of Theo Walcott at the expense of David Beckham. It was to prove a key decision by Capello and Walcott posed the biggest threat for the home side in the first half. A fairly scrappy opening began with Croatia looking the more confident side and looking every inch a team who had yet to lose a qualifying game on their home turf. It took Slaven Bilic’s side only four minutes to test David James in the England goal. After a decent spell of possession, Pranjic tried his luck from range but the Portsmouth goalkeeper saved comfortably after a slight fumble. However, Croatia grew into the game quickly and caused England early problems. Luka Modric was being given far too much space in midfield and the visitors looked vulnerable whenever anyone ran directly at the defence. Yet it was another England based player, Vedran Corluka, who came the closest for the Croats. An excellent deep corner from Srna saw James drop the ball at the back post under pressure from Nico Kovac. With James out of position the ball fell to Corluka but he could only find the side netting. Yet despite the home side’s brighter start, it was the visitors who took the lead. Rio Ferdinand brought the ball out of defence and found Rooney who attempted to play in Joe Cole. Rooney’s attempted through ball instead fell to Pranjic, whose rushed clearance hit Kovac and the ball rebounded to Walcott in the area. The Arsenal teenager, full of composure, struck a fine finish, slipping the ball past the goalkeeper and into the bottom left hand corner to hand Capello’s side the lead. Two minutes later and Walcott almost scored an identical goal. Again he found himself with the ball at his feet in the box but this time his finish was tipped around the post by Pletikosa for a corner. The goal settled England and they managed to contain the home side comfortably for the reminder of the half, with the pace of Walcott on the right serving to remind Bilic of the threat the opposition possessed. Within minutes of the restart matters got even worse for the home side. An aerial challenge between Joe Cole and Robert Kovac left the Chelsea midfielder with a bloodied head and the Croatian with a red card, the referee adjudging Kovac to have led with his elbow. Less than ten minutes later and the visitors inflicted even more damage on the home side. Heskey laid the ball off to Rooney on the edge of the area and the Manchester United man slipped a cute ball through to Walcott inside the area. The Arsenal youngster, in an identical position to his first goal, found another superb finish, firing the ball across the goalkeeper and low into the bottom corner to double England’s lead. Minutes later and England’s joy was unconfined. Ashley Cole and Jermaine Jenas combined well on the left and the Tottenham midfielder’s cross found Rooney in the centre of the area, who finished confidently to give the visitors a three goal cushion and finish the match as a contest. Yet Croatia did manage to pull one goal back. A high challenge on Terry on the half way line was waved away by the referee allowing Srna to run free and cross the ball to Mandzukic who eased the ball past James to grab a consolation for the home side. It was to prove a mere consolation though and almost immediately afterwards Walcott had his hat trick. A superb through ball from Rooney again found Walcott running through on the flank and an exquisite finish gave the Arsenal man his third goal and the perfect way to top off an excellent evening for Capello’s men. Croatia: Pletikosa, Simunic, Robert Kovac, Corluka, Pranjic, Rakitic, Petric, (Knezevic, 55), Nico Kovac (Pokrivac, 62), Srna, Modric, Olic (Manzukic, 73). England: James, Brown, Terry (Upson, 88), Ferdinand, Ashley Cole, Walcott (Beckham, 85), Lampard, Barry, Joe Cole (Jenas, 54), Rooney, Heskey. GOALS 1-4 England (Walcott, 82) 1-3 Croatia (Mandzukic,78) 0-3 England (Rooney, 63) 0-2 England (Walcott, 59) 0-1 England (Walcott, 25)


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