England will look to complete its impressive charge to the 2010 World Cup with an eighth qualifying victory in a row on Wednesday and leave Croatia, Ukraine and Belarus to fight over a route to South Africa through the runners up playoffs.
Revived under Fabio Capello, England holds a four-point lead over second place Croatia at the top of Group 6, has a game in hand over the Croats, and meets them at the New Wembley.
Ukraine is third, has seven points to make up on England and hosts fourth place Belarus, which is 12 points back on the leader. The fact that England is well ahead in the race to the World Cup is a testimony as to how Capello, who won club titles with AC Milan, Juventus, AS Roma and Real Madrid, has turned the ailing team around.
“After the last qualification campaign, when we didn’t qualify (for Euro 2008), that belief and trust was lost from the fans and that hurts players. This qualification campaign has brought belief back into fans and the players. That’s what we needed to get back. We needed to get back to playing the football we knew we could play but we also needed the belief of the fans,” said Los Angeles Galaxy and England star, David Beckham.
With three games to play, England can start preparing for the World Cup by beating Croatia two years after Steve McClaren’s team lost 3-2 at home the Slaven Bilic’s team and missed out on going to last year’s European Championships, won by Spain.
Having beaten Croatia 4-1 in Zagreb a year ago, England has renewed confidence, staying ahead of its rivals in World Cup qualifying virtually since the start and showing the winning mentality Capello has instilled into the players.
Although Rio Ferdinand is missing from the defense through injury, Capello faces Croatia with his team virtually at full strength. Bilic is without attacking midfielder Luka Modric, who was injured playing for Tottenham, and Vedran Corluka, who was sent off in Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Belarus and is suspended.
“It’s a horrible handicap,” said Bilic, whose team will have only one game left after Wednesday’s visit to Wembley but can cut England’s lead to one point with a victory.
The Croats will have another London-based star, Arsenal’s Eduardo da Silva, who hit the headlines after he was suspended for two Champions League games by UEFA for diving to get a penalty in a qualifying game against Celtic. Although the referee awarded the penalty, UEFA took disciplinary action against the Brazil-born striker.
Arsenal is trying to get the ban overturned on appeal, but Eduardo is likely to get a hot reception from the England fans among the crowd at Wembley on Wednesday.
Ukraine maintained its chances of finishing runner up with a 5-0 victory over Andorra on Saturday and has a match in hand on Croatia. The only chance Belarus has is winning its last three games and relying on Croatia collecting no more.