Theo Walcott scored a fairy tale hat-trick as England came through their first major test under Fabio Capello in scintillating fashion with a 4-1 win over a Croatia side never before beaten at home in a competitive international.
The Arsenal teenager's first three international goals were sandwiched around Wayne Rooney's first in almost a year as England claimed revenge for the home-and-away defeats by the Croatians which destroyed their chances of reaching UEFA EURO 2008. Substitute Mario Mandzukic scored Croatia's goal. But, by that stage, Slaven Bilic's side were trailing 3-0 and had given up any hope of extending a 35-match unbeaten run in EURO and FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers that had stretched back to the country's emergence from the ruins of the old Yugoslavia.
The last time an England side appeared at the Maksimir Stadium, an untried, untested 3-5-2 formation had unravelled and succumbed to a 2-0 defeat that, with hindsight, marked the beginning of the end of Steve McClaren's reign as manager. His Italian successor was never likely to embark on a similar tactical gamble, opting for a textbook 4-4-2 that, by the end of the night, fully vindicated his decision to leave David Beckham on the bench and grant Walcott his second international start on the right flank.
Joe Cole was rewarded for scoring England's three previous goals from the bench with a start on the opposite wing. The early signs were far from encouraging for England as they struggled to cope with the movement of their opponents in general and the string-pulling of Luka Modric in particular.
Within two minutes of the start Danijel Pranjic had tested David James with a fierce drive from Mladen Petric's lay-off. Then, twice in quick succession, mistakes by Ashley Cole handed the Croatians goalscoring opportunities that were thwarted by blocks from John Terry.
Capello would have been equally relieved to see Vedran Corluka fire into the sidenetting after David James dropped a corner from the left. England were hanging on desperately at the back but one of the rare counter-attacks they managed to muster might easily have resulted in a penalty, Josip Simunic appearing to bundle Heskey to the ground as the forward attempted to connect with Walcott's volleyed cross.
Minutes later, England were in front, thanks to a mix-up in the heart of the Croatian defence. Pranjic's attempt to find touch clattered into Robert Kovac and sent the ball into Walcott's path to the right of the goalmouth. The teenager's initial touches had all been far from assured. But he was a model of composure as he took a touch before directing a low drive towards the far corner that Stipe Pletikosa got a hand too but could not keep out.
Another important block, this time by Wes Brown from Petric's shot, ensured England's lead remained intact at the break and Croatia were fortunate not to end the half with ten men after Simunic checked Walcott's forward run with a dangerously cynical shoulder charge that merited more than a yellow card. Simunic had another let-off at the start of the second half after tripping Wayne Rooney on the edge of the area but referee Lubos Michel was left with no option but to finally brandish a red when Robert Kovac left Joe Cole reeling with a vicious challenge from behind soon afterwards.
England exploited the numerical advantage brilliantly. Cutting in from the inside left channel, Rooney combined deftly with Heskey on the edge of the area before laying the ball wide to Walcott. From almost the same position as he had scored the opener, the 19-year-old drilled another low drive past Pletikosa.
Croatia were a beaten side and Rooney's workrate was rewarded when he was able to drift unchecked into the penalty area and side-foot substitute Jermaine Jenas's outside-of-the-boot pass into the corner of the net. Mandzukic salvaged a modicum of pride for Croatia but England were to have the final word thanks to the superb first-touch control and instinctive pass from Rooney that sent Walcott clear to complete his hat-trick.