England undone as Croatia cash in on Carson blunder
England 2 Croatia 3
Outclassed, outfought and outthought, England are out of Euro 2008 and Steve McClaren will surely be out of work this morning. Russia qualify behind the outstanding Croatians and England have only themselves, and their hapless manager, to blame.
Nervous early on, they fell behind to goals from Niko Kranjcar, who exploited horrendous handling by Scott Carson, and the terrific Ivica Olic.
Showing guts if nothing else, England clawed their way back in with Frank Lampard's penalty and then a fine Peter Crouch strike but Mladen Petric's thunderbolt condemned England to a humiliating summer on the beach next year.
After this disaster, the nation's pulse will remain dangerously high for months, the FA will call crisis meetings to find a new manager, while the debate will intensify over the importance of developing good young players, those with a technique under pressure to rival the Croatians'.
The need to nurture the grass roots of the game will also extend to Wembley's pitch which looks like the Horse of the Year Show has returned with a vengeance.
While McClaren will receive the comfort of a £2.5m (€3.5m) pay-off, and disappears on holiday to Barbados, all those fans who had been looking for accommodation in the Alps find themselves checked into Heartbreak Hotel.
England woke up only at the interval with the arrival of Beckham and Jermain Defoe.Until then, Croatia enjoyed the freedom of Wembley's scarred surface. No one could blame the surface for Carson's eighth-minute mistake for the visitors' first, nor the defensive uncertainty that allowed Bilic's well-organised side to make it 2-0 in the 14th minute. No one could believe that England, so outplayed for 45 minutes, would rally after the break.
The Villa 'keeper seemed to have the shot from Kranjcar covered, but it bounced directly in front of him. Like an apprentice wicket-keeper, Carson bent down to collect the ball which clipped a glove and carried on into the net. Carson was shocked, England stunned.
The Croats' delight soon doubled. Carson was not culpable this time when Croatia came calling again on the counter. Shaun Wright-Phillips stood with his arm in the air, like an anxious fifth-former wanting to be excused. Olic, patently onside, took full advantage, rounding poor Carson and sliding the ball into the back of the net. The horror, the horror. England fans had promised to support the team, despite their frustrations with an inadequate coach, but this was too much: 2-0 down to Croatia. Dissent seethed on the terraces, intensifying when the dominant visitors almost added a third.
Boos began to ring out as the half progressed. Admiration grew for the visitors. Croatia were outstanding, killing the ball instantly, stringing passes together, going through the gears at the right speed.
News then filtered through that Russia had taken the lead and Group E stood for Everest. England had a mountain to climb, their stars totally eclipsed.
Steven Gerrard and Lampard were first-half spectators as Modric orchestrated proceedings. No wonder Chelsea are reported to be watching the Dinamo Zagreb play-maker. Eduardo and Olic also caught the eye, constantly slipping their markers.
McClaren had to act, and sent what he hoped would be the cavalry at half time in the form of Beckham and Defoe. Wright-Phillips and Gareth Barry made way, but it could have been any of McClaren's midfielders, with the exception of the tireless Joe Cole.
When Robert Kovac then fouled Crouch 30 yards out, Beckham was presented with a free-kick and all Wembley stood in feverish anticipation. Beckham, sadly, bent the ball into the wall.
The next dead-ball brought far more joy. When Josip Siminuc tugged back Defoe, the offence was spotted by the Swedish linesman. Lampard calmly took the ball, placed it on the spot and then drove it past Pletikosa.
Belief spread around Wembley. A draw was in sight. There were still 34 minuets remaining. Yet Croatia still threatened. Bridge almost conceded an own goal, clipping the ball onto his own bar. Carson saved brilliantly from Olic, keeping England in it. Carson then denied Olic again.
Supporters looked to Beckham for salvation. Struggling for fitness, the LA Galaxy midfielder can still deliver a superb cross, and with 25 minutes left, and the fans screaming themselves hoarse, Beckham certainly delivered. The ball was swept in perfectly from the right, Crouch chested down and then swept an equaliser past Pletikosa.
The rollercoaster continued. Croatia regained the lead with 13 nail-biting minutes remaining. Seizing on a hasty Beckham clearance, Croatia went for the jugular, Petric cutting in from the left, and then letting fly, the ball deceiving Carson.
McClaren, his job hanging by a thread, sent on Darren Bent, who almost scored, but Croatia were deserved winners. England were out.