England will become the second European nation to qualify for the FIFA World Cup on Wednesday with a win over Croatia. Spain and Holland can also join the bandwagon if results go in their favour.
For the England players, the Croatia encounter isn’t just a chance to secure top spot in Group 6 with two games to spare.
They hope it will be a cathartic experience after Slaven Bilic’s men condemned England to a rain-soaked defeat at Wembley that denied it a spot at the European Championship and ended Steve McClaren’s 18-month managerial reign.
“There is unfinished business for all of us—the result and the performance that night really hurt us,” England midfielder Steven Gerrard said. “I’m still not over it. I don’t think I will be over it until we get that qualification under our belts this week. We remember the result two years back and will use it to motivate ourselves on Wednesday.”
England’s transformation under Fabio Capello has been remarkable with the Italian coach masterminding seven straight qualifying wins. That hasn’t stopped the tough questions over England’s defensive lapses or Capello’s reluctance to start with forward Jermain Defoe, who came off the bench Saturday to clinch a 2-1 friendly victory over Slovenia.
It was the Tottenham striker’s fifth international goal in three matches, but Capello still favors Emile Heskey partnering Wayne Rooney in attack from the start.
“Perhaps he would be tired if he played from the first minute,” Capello joked.
The mood is far from jovial in Portugal or France after draws for both nations on Saturday jeopardized their hopes of booking tickets to South Africa next June.
France is four points behind Group seven leaders Serbia, which can all but guarantee qualification and relegate Raymond Domenech’s side to a playoff spot at best if it wins at Belgrade in Wednesday’s round of qualifiers.
Victory for the French would put them a point behind with two games left, but they have injury concerns over defender Julien Escude, who scored an own-goal in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Romania, and winger Franck Ribery.
“Even if we beat Serbia,” France striker Thierry Henry cautioned, “we still need them to slip up.”
Portugal’s predicament is even more precarious in Group one. Going into Wednesday’s must-win match against second-placed Hungary, Portugal is languishing in fourth place, even with world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo, and trails Denmark by seven points and Sweden by two.
Denmark travels to Albania on course for first place and automatic qualification following Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Portugal.
Like England, Spain has won seven out of seven qualifiers by maintaining the forward momentum achieved during its Euro 2008-winning run.
Vicente del Bosque’s side can qualify by seeing off Estonia and hoping Bosnia fails to beat Turkey.
As for the reigning world champion, Italy can forge four points ahead of Ireland in Group eight by beating Bulgaria at Turin with two matches remaining.
Switzerland heads to Latvia on top of Group two for the first time following a 2-0 victory over Greece.
“We have a three—point advantage (over Greece and Latvia), but we can only make clear statements about our position after the Latvia game,” coach Ottmar Hitzfeld said. “Three teams are still in the race.”
It’s a similar situation in Group four. The three-time World Cup champion Germany’s lead was trimmed to a point on Saturday when Russia beat Liechtenstein 3-0 on Saturday. The German’s host Azerbaijan in the first of their three remaining games.
Russia, which is at Wales on Wednesday, has a five-point advantage over Finland, which travels to Liechtenstein.
The Netherlands were the first European side to qualify for South Africa and now the focus is on the tussle for second spot in Group nine.
Scotland will hope the Dutch aren’t protective of their 100 percent record with George Burley needing a victory at Hampden Park to maintain his side’s hopes of being one of Europe’s top eight runners-up.
The Scots will be hoping for a draw between Norway and Macedonia, who are both three points adrift.