England outplayed Croatia 5-1 to qualify for the World Cup in style, with Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard scoring two goals each as Fabio Capello's team maintained a perfect record in qualifying.
|Frank Lampard opens the scoring for England [AFP]
Although England needed only a point to guarantee a place in next year's finals in South Africa, they raced into a 2-0 lead by the 18th minute with Lampard's eighth-minute penalty and Gerrard's close-range header.
Lampard added a third in the 59th and Gerrard's second header put England out of
Eduardo da Silva replied with a consolation goal for Croatia, but Wayne Rooney added a fifth after goalkeeper Vedran Runje passed straight to him.
England also beat Croatia 4-1 in Zagreb a year ago and now has 24 points from eight games with Croatia on 17 from nine.
Ukraine (15 points) and Belarus drew 0-0 earlier Wednesday and also can't catch Capello's team, which was in control of this game from the start.
The England coach said he was impressed with "the spirit of the group, the concentration. I was happy for everything.''
Because his team qualified with two games to spare, Capello now has nine months to prepare for the World Cup with its frustrated fans still waiting for a first major triumph since England won the title in 1966.
"The competition is hard,'' Capello said. "We have to play to win. We are England. We have time to prepare for the World Cup. I know the problems playing in the World Cup.''
Croatia coach Slaven Bilic is now left to try and qualify through the runners up playoffs, assuming his team finishes second.
"Not even in our worst nightmares have we though that we would fail that much,'' he said.
"But (England) was better in every situation. They absolutely deserved the victory. They were stronger every time, they were faster for one meter at any moment, they were simply better.''
Bilic said Croatia was handicapped by the absence of the injured Luka Modric and Ivan Juric and suspended Vedran Corluka.
"It's stupid to say it after 5-1, but it could have been worse,'' he said. "This is not a defeat, this is a sickness.''
Starting instead of Shaun Wright-Phillips on the right, Aaron Lennon broke in from the wing and was crudely brought down inside the area by Josip
Simunic and Lampard blasted the spot kick powerfully past goalkeeper Vedran Runje.
The Croat keeper also had to keep out shots from Gareth Barry and Lampard but was beaten again in the 18th minute.
Gerrard floated a pass out to Lennon on the right and arrived unmarked at the far post to head home from five metres out.
It should have been more by halftime but Emile Heskey, preferred in attack to Jermain Defoe despite the Tottenham striker's impressive recent scoring record, had two shots blocked by Runje when put clear of Croatia's defence.
Croatia appealed for a penalty when Eduardo da Silva, jumping for a cross only three metres from goal, appeared to be pushed in the air by Glen Johnson.
Spanish referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco ruled there was no push.
The third goal arrived with Croatia showing signs of defensive problems, needlessly giving the ball away in their own half.
The referee waved play on with England still in possesion after Lennon had been fouled, Gerrard found Johnson on the right and the fullback's cross was expertly glanced inside the far post by Lampard for his second goal.
Six minutes later Gerrard added his second, Rooney getting clear to lob a cross towards the far post and the Liverpool midfielder arriving entirely alone as he jumped to score with a long range header.
Eduardo posed few problems to the England defense but the Arsenal striker, facing a two-game ban for diving to get a penalty in a Champions League game, scored a consolation goal from close range after goalkeeper Robert Green had first saved his header.
Eduardo went off a minute later and England added a fifth in the 78th when goalkeeper Runje collected a backpass from Ivan Krizanac and sliced the ball straight to Rooney who fired home to prompt more celebrations among the England fans.
Capello sent David Beckham on for the last 10 minutes, the Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder making his 114th appearance.
Meanwhile, Spain clinched their place at next year's World Cup when goals from Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata gave them a 3-0 win over visiting Group Five rivals Estonia.
The victory on a sweltering night at the Estadio Romano in Merida meant the European champions qualified as group winners with two matches to spare after notching up eight wins out of eight.