England dare to dream again
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It was a night of sweet symmetry for England as they swept aside their UEFA EURO 2008 nemesis Croatia to book their ticket to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.

Twenty-two months after the misery of failing to qualify for the European Championship following a 3-2 defeat by Croatia on a rain-sodden Wembley night, England underlined the extent of their improvement since then by beating Slaven Bilic's side 5-1 to secure their 13th FIFA World Cup finals appearance next year with two matches to spare.

The only similarity between Croatia's last visit to north London and this one were the names of the two teams on the Wembley scoreboard. Two years ago Steve McClaren's England had stumbled through EURO 2008 qualifying and they duly surrendered their finals' place with Mladen Petric's 77th-minute winner for Croatia on 21 November 2007.

Yet the gloom that engulfed England at the time of the South Africa 2010 qualifying draw - which came four days after their Croatia calamity - has long since dispersed in the face of the impressive progress made under coach Fabio Capello, McClaren's replacement. After losing twice to Croatia in EURO 2008 qualifying, England laid down their marker for this campaign with a 4-1 triumph in Zagreb on 10 September 2008.

If Theo Walcott stole the headlines that night with his hat-trick, this evening brought a notable cameo from another jet-heeled wide man in Tottenham Hotspur winger Aaron Lennon. He won the seventh-minute penalty that Frank Lampard tucked away before Steven Gerrard confirmed England's early dominance by heading their second after 18 minutes.

Since the manager arrived, there has been nothing but hard work, our confidence has come on a million miles in the way the team is playing.
Frank Lampard, England midfielder.

England captain John Terry said of his team's high-tempo start: "The manager stressed before the game to press them - press in their half, which we did, which is what we are all about and when we play like that we are very difficult to play against." Looking ahead, the cool South African winter can only help England in this respect.

Gerrard and Lampard added a header apiece in the second period - Capello seems to have found a way for that pair to flourish in tandem - and confirm England's supremacy before Eduardo made it 4-1.

It was fitting that Rooney should have the final word. Over the course of the campaign he has arguably been England's star performer and he took his tally in qualifying to nine with England's fifth goal. Goalkeeping mistakes had facilitated Croatia's two wins over England in 2007 and at Wembley tonight he benefited from a miskick by away goalkeeper Vedran Runje to set the seal on the celebrations after 77 minutes, netting his 25th goal for his country.

The Manchester United forward's first FIFA World Cup campaign was hampered by fitness problems and, as with another prodigy Diego Maradona, it ended with a red card in England's quarter-final defeat by Portugal. He will be 24 in June and desperate to make amends. 

It is now 20 years since England, who lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy as hosts in 1966, produced their best performance in a FIFA World Cup on foreign soil by reaching the semi-finals at Italia 90. The style in which they have qualified augurs well for their prospects in South Africa. Only continental champions Spain and the Netherlands have matched their 100 per cent winning record in European qualifying and nobody has scored more than the 31 goals Capello's men have mustered in their eight matches.

While praising the England performance, midfielder Lampard stressed the need to "keep our feet firmly on the ground". Capello, a serial winner in club football, will know this better than anyone. He will have a number of key decisions to make before the finals - including settling on a first-choice goalkeeper and also determining David Beckham's role in the squad.

Yet Lampard added: "I think we've put the record straight, to some extent.  Since the manager arrived, there has been nothing but hard work, our confidence has come on a million miles in the way the team is playing. Today just typified everything about us in this campaign, it is the first step and we've qualified now but there's still a long way to go."

Talk of England's 'golden generation' ended up looking distinctly cheap at the 2006 finals in Germany, but two years after their Croatian nightmare, they have at least given their supporters licence to dream again.