England face Croatia test as qualifiers continue

LONDON (Reuters) - England will aim to put an end to their Croatia jinx on Wednesday when the sides continue their rivalry in Zagreb with World Cup qualifying points at stake.

The Group Six clash stands out on busy night of action that includes European champions Spain’s Group Five tie against Armenia and world champions Italy at home to Georgia.

Russia begin their campaign in Group Four at home to Wales in Moscow while the Netherlands face a tricky trip to Macedonia in Bert van Marwijk’s first competitive match in charge.

England’s new coach Fabio Capello got his first competitive victory on Saturday in a drab 2-0 win against Andorra in Barcelona but things are about heat up for the experienced Italian charged with restoring England’s flagging fortunes.

Croatia, who won their Group Six opener 3-0 against Kazakhstan on Saturday, beat England home and away to qualify for Euro 2008 and in so doing ended the dour reign of former England coach Steve McClaren.

The 2-0 defeat in October 2006 seemed to sum up England’s malaise during the McClaren era -- a comical own goal from experienced defender Gary Neville after an air kick from goalkeeper Paul Robinson a bitter memory.

Another loss would cast further gloom across a national side struggling to repair battered reputations.

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“Croatia will be strong and the level of the quality of the players will be better and more dangerous,” Capello, who will hope central defender Rio Ferdinand recovers from a back injury, said after the Andorra victory.

“They are a good team and, when they play at home, the fans help the players a lot. The fans are very strong in terms of emotion and passion.”

The match will have added spice as English Premier League club West Ham United have admitted they are keen to talk to Croatia coach Slaven Bilic about their managerial vacancy.

Spain began with a 1-0 defeat of Bosnia on Saturday in Vicente del Bosque’s first meaningful match and should make it six points out of six when they host Armenia.

The world’s top-ranked side were not totally convincing against Bosnia, likewise Italy who began in Group Eight with a 2-1 victory in Cyprus courtesy of Antonio Di Natale’s stoppage time goal for the Azzurri.

Marcello Lippi will be looking for a more fluent display against the Georgians who were beaten 2-1 on Saturday by Ireland in a “home” match played in neutral Germany.

Russia, who reached the semi-finals of Euro 2008, will need a good start to their campaign where Germany will provide the main hurdle to World Cup qualification.

They should be too strong for a young Welsh team in Moscow while Germany will need to be on their toes away to Finland, a much tougher proposition that Liechtenstein who they walloped 6-0 on Saturday.

The Netherland were beaten by Australia in a friendly on Saturday but the real business begins for Van Marwijk in Skopje where Macedonia have already beaten Scotland in Group Nine.

Lithuania and Austria, who recorded Group Seven shocks against Romania and France on Saturday, meet in an unlikely early battle for top spot in Marijampole.2

Raymond Domenech’s days as France coach could be numbered if his side fail to bounce back from Saturday’s humbling 3-1 defeat against Austria when the 2006 World Cup runners-up face Serbia in Paris.

Editing by Miles Evans