Croatia meet England in WC qualifier

It seems only World Cup finalists Italy and France were delighted with Sunday's draw for the 2010 tournament.

updated: November 27, 2007 11:58 IST
  • Total Shares


It seems only World Cup finalists Italy and France were delighted with Sunday's draw for the 2010 tournament.

Even Croatia dreaded a return to England, which it outplayed at Wembley only last week.

World champion Italy has Bulgaria, ranked 14th in Europe, and Ireland as its toughest opponents in Group 8 on its way to South Africa.

"We could not have asked for better. As world champions we should win this group," Italian soccer federation president Giancarlo Abete said.

And even if many thought France had perhaps the toughest draw with Romania and Serbia in Group 7, the French scoffed at the thought.

"It could have been worse. It's not the hardest group," French soccer federation president Jean-Pierre Escalettes said. "We will do everything to finish first."

Often bad omens dominated. England found out Sunday it will play Croatia in World Cup qualifying, one week after the Croats eliminated the English from next year's European Championship.

It seemed Croatia was even more impressed by the - bad - luck of the draw, cursing its chances.

"The only team I wanted to avoid was England," Croatia coach Slaven Bilic said, counting on a sense of revenge when they will next meet. "Everyone in Croatia was saying 'Give us England again,' but I wanted to avoid England."

England will also have World Cup quarterfinalist Ukraine and Belarus to deal with in Group 1.

Considering only the group winner is assured automatic qualification, there was plenty of room for doubt. Eight of the nine runners-up will face playoffs, always the trickiest matches.

In Group 1, Portugal, Sweden and Denmark, all stand a chance of finishing in first place.

"It will be tough. I have a lot of respect for Portugal. It is one of the toughest teams we could face," Sweden head coach Lars Lagerback said.

World Cup semifinalist Portugal is not the only thing on his mind.

"I don't like to play our neighbor. Denmark is a really good team," Lagerback said.

Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari agreed.

"There are no easy groups in the World Cup," the Brazilian said.

The Czech Republic faces Poland in Group 3, but also an even trickier neighbor - Slovakia, from which it split 15 years ago. Politically, it was called the "velvet revolution," but such feelings rarely translate to the soccer field.

The group "could turn treacherous," Czech soccer federation head Pavel Mokry said. "We'll again play Slovakia in a fratricidal struggle."

The Czechs beat their neighbors to reach the Euro 2008 finals.

Three-time World Cup champion Germany will play Russia, Finland, Wales, Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein in Group 4.

"It"s an interesting group. Russia is the strongest opponent, but one can't underestimate Finland," German soccer legend Franz Beckenbauer said.

Spain, which has never won the World Cup, faces Turkey, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Armenia and Estonia.

In the only group with five teams, the Netherlands drew Scotland, Norway, Macedonia and Iceland.

"Scotland, Norway and Iceland have big, strong players who play a physical game. We will have to be careful," Netherlands coach Marco van Basten said.

Two of Van Basten's first games in charge of the Netherlands were against Macedonia and both ended in draws.

"They won't be easy to beat. They are a tough team," the former striker added.

Van Basten said he was impressed with Scotland in its Euro 2008 qualification campaign.

"In a tough pool with Ukraine, Italy and France, they made life very difficult for the other teams. Scottish clubs are going well in Europe, they are a very serious opponent," Van Basten said.

Greece, which defends its European title next year, drew Israel, Switzerland, Moldova, Latvia and Luxembourg in Group 2.

"It looks pretty good for us (on paper), but we still have to play the games," Greece coach Otto Rehhagel said.