Luz, Lisbon June 21st 2004
In the end England won this match convincingly but the Croatians showed a lot of spirit and more than once had the English fans wondering if this was to be another hard luck story.
Luckily for England they had the unstoppable Wayne Rooney in their side who was to make sure England blasted their way to a showdown with the hosts Portugal on Thursday.
The match started nervously with England unable to retain possession for anything more than a handful of passes and it was the determined Croatian side who were to score first and really unsettle the favourites to qualify in second place from the group.
With only five minutes on the clock Beckham needlessly conceded a free kick on the English right with a clumsy challenge, about 35 yards from goal towards the touchline. Milan Rapaic, who Beckham had fouled, curled in a menacing free kick that Ashley Cole was unable to clear. David James should have done better but he was only able to parry the ball into the six yard box, it fell in front of John Terry who was slow to react and Niko Kovac prodded home, 1-0 Croatia. Once again England had been punished from a set piece.
England responded well to the goal and started to create a number of good chances. They had beaten Croatia 3-1 in a friendly in August and were slowly starting to show the same kind of dominance although Croatia were more than comfortable on the ball and were swift to counter attack.
Michael Owen has received a lot of criticism for his performances in the previous two games but tonight he showed that he hasn't lost his appetite for the game. He started brightly with a couple of great moves early on and enjoyed the extra space that the Croatians seemed happy to allow him. Perhaps they were more concerned about his 18 year old strike partner.
England enjoyed a lot of possession after the goal and strung together a lot of intelligent passes but somehow couldn't find a way to unlock the Croatian defence. David Beckham switched to more central role for England after twenty minutes and this seemed to change the pace of the England attacks which were starting to overpower the opposition.
England's first corner of the game was won after 25 minutes and from this they had a couple of half chances with a couple of unconvincing attempts to clear the danger from Butina in the Croatia goal.
In the 28th minute Wayne Rooney was thumped from behind just outside the box. David Beckham stepped up with his trademark scowl but smacked the resulting free kick into the defensive wall.
When the English attacks broke down Croatia were counter attacking well, with David James having to be at his best to stop a Dado Prso shot from outside the box. Even though Croatia were hitting the target, nothing was really troubling James too much.
In the 40th minute of the first half England finally found the inspiration that they needed. Frank Lampard threaded a superb pass to Michael Owen who only just failed to slide the ball past Butina who made a good block. The ball spun high in the air and fell towards Rooney unmarked who unselfishly, and quite brilliantly, floated a header across the penalty box towards Scholes to guide the ball into the empty net for his first England goal in three years.
Croatia barely had time to compose themselves when in first half injury time, who else, but Wayne Rooney blasted England into the lead.
The build up was excellent, Owen was given gallons of space on the left by the central defenders. This allowed him to push forward and exchange passes with Scholes who squared the ball for an unmarked Rooney. The new England hero took one touch, had a quick look and then slammed the ball goalwards. Butina managed to get a hand on it but couldn't do a thing about the almost inevitable outcome.
There was a lot of talk from Croatia before the game about intimidating Rooney and getting him sent off. They should have spent more time on planning how to defend against him, the defence stood and watched the youngster deliver an unchallenged strike from 19 yards to level the game. This was Rooney's 8th goal in his 16th game.
England started the second half well with two Scholes efforts in the first five minutes. Croatia were struggling to hold on.
Michael Owen broke clear in the 57th minute only to end his run with a chip from 18 yards that landed on the roof of the net. Still just a youngster one felt that Owen of yesteryear would have outpaced everyone and finished no problem. You do get the impression however that Owen will still play a big part in England's future in this tournament.
Indeed it was Owen who played Rooney through for the best goal of the match. A sensational one two with Owen at the half way line, Rooney was in the clear with space to run into. There was only ever going to be one outcome and having ran twenty five yards Rooney swept the ball confidently past Butina to make it 1-3.
Sven then decided to deny Rooney his hat trick by substituting him in the 70th minute. This was to appear a dangerous decision when four minutes later Cole conceded a silly free kick on the left, just outside the box. Tudor outjumped the English defence to head home a bullet header into the top left and score Croatia's second, 2-3. Another loss at a set piece for England.
This seemed to rock the English but only momentarily. They recovered well and scored a fourth only five minutes later. Darius Vassell deserves credit for his surging run before feeding the ball to Frank Lampard. Lampard burst though the Croatian defence, side stepping his way into the box before unleashing a left foot strike into the net. England had finally killed the tie.
Although now the tournaments top goal scorers and much improved from the opening two games England need to figure out how to shut up shop, particularly from set-pieces, before facing Ronaldo, Figo and Gomez. If they do, dare I say it, this England side could go all the way and it may all be down to one man, Wayne Rooney.
Croatia: Butina, Simic (Srna 67), Robert Kovac (Mornar 45), Simunic, Zivkovic, Rosso, Tudor, Nico Kovac, Rapaic (Olic 55), Prso, Sokota.
Subs not used: Babic, Bjelica, Didulica, Klasnic, Leko, Neretljak, Tokic, Tomas, Vasilj.
England: James, Gary Neville, Terry, Campbell, Ashley Cole, Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard (Phil Neville 84), Scholes (King 70), Owen, Rooney (Vassell 72).
Subs not used: Bridge, Butt, Carragher, Joe Cole, Dyer, Hargreaves, Heskey, Robinson, Walker.
Referee: Pierluigi Collina (Italy).