ZAGREB (AFP) - Fabio Capello owes his position as the world's best paid coach to Croatia, but England's Italian manager would be unwise to anticipate any further favours from Slaven Bilic and his squad here on Wednesday.
Having masterminded home and away victories over England in the qualifying campaign for Euro 2008, Bilic played a central role in ensuring Wayne Rooney and co. were missing from the finals, thus creating the vacancy that Capello filled at the start of this year.
The reputation of his predecessor, Steve McClaren, never recovered from the 2-0 defeat England suffered here two years ago.
That match will always be associated with the comical 'air kick' by goalkeeper Paul Robinson which ensured that Gary Neville's passback trundled into the net to gift Croatia their opening goal.
Less well remembered is the fact that McClaren had sent his side out in an experimental 3-5-2 formation which only exacerbated the technical superiority of their hosts, who were far from flattered by the final scoreline, as their 3-2 victory at Wembley last year proved.
A repeat of the tactical ineptitude that marked England's last visit to the Croatian capital seems unlikely with Capello in charge.
But the Italian has yet to prove that he can inspire a significant improvement in the collective performance of what is the essentially the same group of players that failed to live up to their billing under McClaren.
In contrast, the Croatians confirmed their quality at Euro 2008 -- where they were unfortunate to go out in the quarter-finals on penalties after Turkey's last-gasp equaliser -- and the feel of their 3-0 cruise against Kazakhstan in their opening qualifier on Saturday was significantly removed from the scrambled nature of England's 2-0 win over Andorra at the weekend.
All of which has helped to put Bilic in bullish mood as he contemplates a fixture that could further enhance his reputation as one of the most in-demand young coaches in world football.
"There is no reason to suspect that we will now fall down, our ball is rolling forward," he said. "We expect a great game on Wednesday. Against Kazakhstan we played as we planned, the only question was if our supremacy on the field showed on the scoreline."
Bilic has been linked to the managerial vacancy at West Ham and while some members of Croatia's football hierarchy have muttered about the speculation being intended to destabilise the squad, the manager himself has been revelling in the additional attention.
"It is great that I'm linked to the club from the best league in the world but it doesn't make my work with the national team harder," he said.
"In training we always make jokes. Players tease me to take them to England as well. The interest of West Ham is proof that we are doing a great job with the national team."
Croatia are without long-term absentee Eduardo, the Arsenal striker, and will also have to do without injured Portsmouth midfielder Niko Kranjcar on Wednesday evening.
But they go into the game boasting a proud record of never having lost a competitive match at home since Croatia emerged from the disintegration of Yugoslavia at the start of the 1990's.
Ending a run that has now reached 35 matches would represent a significant achievement for Capello and his captain, John Terry, believes it is one within England's grasp.
"We've got unfinished business with Croatia," Terry said. "This is a new campaign and we are going there to pick up three points. We know it's going to be tough again but, hopefully, they will come at us a bit more than Andorra did and we have to try and rise to the challenge of going back to a ground where we have bad memories."
Terry is expected to have Rio Ferdinand back alongside him in central defence after the Manchester United defender's recovery from a neck problem which ruled him out of the Andorra match.
That will mean Joleon Lescott making way but Capello has given few clues as to whether he will promote Joe Cole, scorer of both goals against Andorra after coming on as a second-half substitute, to a starting role.
Capello must also decide whether to persevere with 19-year-old Theo Walcott on the right flank or opt for the greater experience of David Beckham, and whether Emile Heskey's power should be deployed in a solo striker role for a match in which a draw would be regarded as a good result for the visitors.
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