England qualifications are not used to happen this way. Where was the last-gasp heroic goal, the nervous, stuttering qualification that went down to the wire, the sharpening of knives for the manager? Where was the unconvincing qualification, overlooked as assorted players and journalists chest-thumped that, having qualified, England could go onto win it, fooling nobody in the process?
Slaven Bilic wasn’t wrong in some respects when he said England have lost their ‘Englishness’. On the field, the Three Lions came out the blocks flying and never let up. If this were a race, England would be Usain Bolt such was their dominance against Croatia.
Yet manager Fabio Capello hasn’t exactly been talking up his team’s chances just yet, and is probably right not to do so. England go into the World Cup in great form, but there’s still plenty of obstacles in their path to potential glory.
The hand of Fab
Not that you’d know it from qualification. Even if there have been a few unconvincing performances, such as Andorra and the first 45 minutes against Kazakhstan, England have done what was required of them with ease, with Wednesday night the peak, so far, of the transformation of a battered and bruised team who couldn’t each Euro 2008.
Croatia, for all their ineptitude against England, are still not a bad side, even if they’re not quite at the same level as the generation of Suker, Prosinecki et al. But England were unrecognisable from their last meeting at Wembley.
Every ball mattered, every attack seemed capable of producing a goal. There was an enviable mixture of steel and flair and, quite simply, many England players turned in some of their best ever performances in a national shirt.
At the heart of all this stands the influence of Capello, a man who still raged on the touchline when Croatia pulled back to 4-1. Don Fabio is not a man who tolerates lapses, no matter how far in front his team is.
A lesser manager may have bowed to public opinion by giving Jermaine Defoe a start, but Capello persists with the unfashionable Emile Heskey, who is a vital cog to the way England play. Few will bet against the Italian leading England to South Africa after a flawless qualification (there are still games against Ukraine and Belarus to come).
But even while the country celebrates, and tabloids find themselves in the unusual position of showering praise upon the current incumbent, Capello will know the job has only just begun. England can tentatively describe themselves as world class now, even if they are far from being the best in the world.
The team that lined up for the 2-0 loss against Spain in February may be somewhat different from the one that took to the field at Wembley, but the European Champions still laid down a marker that night, reaffirming that they are the team to beat in Europe.
Like England, Spain have coasted through their qualification group, their heart composed of Barcelona’s finest who conquered all this season in Europe. Add the likes of Torres, David Silva, David Villa, and Xabi Alonso to Iniesta and Xavi and you have a mouthwatering selection of talents that work well as a team.
Currently Spain should be considered joint favourites, along with Brazil, who look ominously good. It is not inconceivable that England may have to defeat one, or even both teams, if they are to win the World Cup.
For a team that has built itself on the myth of samba football, Brazil are set up to win games, something they do very efficiently. Dunga may not be a popular coach with the Brazilian public, but he gets results.
While Spain are all about passing, movement and generally beguiling opponents, Brazil are built on a ruthlessly efficient counter attacking model. Quite simply, the South Americans can comfortably soak up pressure before breaking with speed and efficiency and giving lesser sides little chance. It is a team built in the model of the playing style of their coach.
Behind Brazil and Spain come familiar faces as the rest of the world jostles for the ‘best of the rest’ title. Holland have walked through their group, although will always be fighting themselves as much as the opposition.
Then you have Italy and Germany, neither of whom are yet through to South Africa and neither of whom have impressed. But qualification form counts for little in the tournaments and somehow you always see these names towards the latter end of the tournament. It would seem strange to even mention Italy given their current state, but they can never be discounted.
From CONACAF, the USA have shown in the Confederations Cup that they will be no pushovers, while Mexico are resurgent following their discarding of Sven, while any of the teams in the South American group will fancy their chances of an upset.
And England would be right to be cautious of a selection of African teams, should they qualify. Cameroon have started to look like a very decent side under Paul Le Guen, while the Ivory Coast contains world class players like Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure. Both teams may quietly fancy their chances of a good run in the competition.
But South Africa is still a whole season away and much can happen in this time period. England wouldn’t be England without an injury scare and it would only take one of Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard or John Terry to drop out and the squad takes on a very different look.
There is also the danger of complacency, although this is something Capello is unlikely to stand for. Nonetheless, forthcoming fixtures against Ukraine and Belarus will come as something of an anti-climax and anything less than convincing wins could attract criticism.
But there’s something different about this England team – the players look like they believe they can win every game. Capello will need to draw every ounce of this mental strength if England are to succeed in a competition where there will be no easy games.
The Three Lions may not yet be the best in the world, and still have work to do if they want to be considered as such, but they are also in the best shape since 1966 to make a stint at taking the famous trophy back to these shores.