After finding their route to UEFA EURO 2008 barred by Croatia, England have an early chance for revenge when they travel to Zagreb for an encounter that takes star billing on Matchday 2 of European qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
All the members of the continental elite got off to winning starts at the weekend with the exception of France, who saw their status further undermined by defeat to Austria, and must come up with a response when Serbia come calling on Wednesday.
The big game
Croatia-England, Wednesday 10 September, Maksimir Stadium, Zagreb, 21.00 (local time). Follow the match LIVE with the FIFA.com EMIRATES MatchCast.
There has been little to choose between the two sides in their five previous meetings, with both teams claiming a brace of wins and the other game ending in a draw. On this particular occasion, however, the pressure is firmly on Fabio Capello's men. England have been unconvincing in their recent friendly outings, and Saturday's narrow 2-0 win over Andorra did little to reassure their worried fans. And while defeat at this early stage would hardly put an end to their qualification hopes, it could have serious implications. Even so, despite an unbeaten record against the English as a player and coach, Slaven Bilic will be taking nothing for granted, especially with the pragmatic Capello lining up against him.
The other games
4-0 winners against Malta at the weekend, Portugal have the chance to confirm their status as Group 1 favourites and open up an early lead when they entertain Denmark, who were held to a goalless draw in Hungary in their first outing.
Latvia and Greece both won on Saturday to make the early running in Group 2. Israel and Switzerland played out a 2-2 draw, meanwhile, and need wins against Moldova and Luxembourg respectively if they are not to lose touch.
Czech Republic's new coach Petr Rada will attempt to continue Karel Bruckner's good work when he makes his competitive debut in an awkward trip to Northern Ireland. Neighbours Slovakia, the early pace-setters in Group 3, have an away day of their own in Slovenia.
After kicking off their Group 4 campaign with an emphatic 6-0 defeat of Liechtenstein, Germany, still deprived of Michael Ballack's services, should have a far tougher assignment when they travel to Finland. Russia, the team most likely to challenge the Germans, entertain Wales in their opening fixture.
Over in Group 5 Vicente del Bosque made a successful start to his tenure as Spain coach when the reigning European champions overcame Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0. And even without the injured David Silva and Fernando Torres, the men in red should have too much for Armenia. With a record of 35 wins, 17 draws and 47 defeats, Turkey will be aiming to stay in touch with the Spanish when they play their 100th FIFA World Cup qualifier at home to an improving Belgium side.
While England and Croatia battle it out in Zagreb, Group 6 rivals Ukraine will have an excellent chance to move to the top of the section when they take on Kazakhstan.
Lithuania and Austria face off in a surprise Group 7 summit meeting following respective shock wins over Romania and France. Those unexpected reverses have increased the pressure on Les Bleus boss Raymond Domenech and his Romanian counterpart Victor Piturca. Even without a host of injured first-choice players, among them Adrian Mutu, the Eastern Europeans should open their account against the Faroe Islands, while the French, who have yet to emerge from an extended transitional phase, play host to Serbia in a crucial encounter.
Italy's last-minute 2-1 win away to Group 8 rivals Cyprus came at a price. Gennaro Gattuso, Alessandro Gamberini and Fabio Grosso will all be missing with injury when they welcome Georgia, although the world champions should have little problem in pocketing the points.
Finally, in Group 9 Macedonia will be out to build on their narrow defeat of Scotland when they square off at home to the Netherlands in Bert van Marwijk's first competitive game in charge.
Player to watch
Having struggled to contain lanky Austrian striker Marc Janko on Saturday, France will have to find a solution to the problems Serbia's beanpole forward Nikola Zigic is sure to cause. The 27-year-old Valencia front man has a fine international record, scoring 13 goals in 30 appearances.
The stat 0 - The number of defeats Croatia have suffered at home in 30 FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championship qualifiers. The Croats have won 21 of those games, drawing the other nine.
What they said"Judge the team after Wednesday's game, because Croatia are ranked fifth in the world. Tonight's game and Wednesday's game will be two completely different animals." England midfielder Joe Cole, after Saturday's 2-0 win over Andorra.
Have your say
Can Russia mount a challenge to Germany in Group 4? Can Fabio Capello get England playing the way he wants? Should France be playing with two men up front? Click on ‘Add your comment' and give us your thoughts.
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