ZAGREB, June 6 (Reuters) - Croatia stayed on course to qualify for the Euro 2008 finals and extended their unbeaten home run to 32 competitive matches after a 0-0 draw with Russia in their Group E qualifier on Wednesday.
The Croatians, who have never lost a European Championship
or World Cup qualifier at home, top the group with 17 points
from seven matches, ahead on goal difference of Israel who have
played a game more.
Third-placed Russia, on 15 points from seven games, and
England, in fourth on 14 from seven, are also very much in the
hunt ahead of what Russia's coach Guus Hiddink believes will be
their crucial double-header in September and October.
'That's when this tight group will be decided and hopefully
we will be able to perform well and get the results we need
against England,' he told Croatian television after seeing his
team hang on against a more adventurous home side.
'We are happy with the outcome here because very few teams
have been able to get a result against a top quality Croatia
side in Zagreb and the performance will also give us a lot of
confidence,' he said.
Croatia had the Russians on the back foot for long spells
but resolute defending from the visitors and a good save from
their keeper Vyacheslav Malafeyev in the closing stages denied
the hosts a sixth successive win in the group.
After a dour first half, Croatia twice came close in the
space of a minute near the hour mark when Eduardo da Silva saw
his shot into en empty net charged down and Josip Simunic's
looping header came off the crossbar.
Croatia, unable to break through a packed Russian midfield
and carve out clear-cut chances, pressed on with long balls in
search of a winner and almost got it when Malafaeyev parried
Petric's fierce shot and then scrambled the ball off the line.
The home team's coach Slaven Bilic was pleased with the
performance but rued a missed chance to pull clear of Croatia's
rivals at the top of the group.
'We did everything but score, the lads did a great job and
played their hearts out but it wasn't enough against a defensive
Russian side,' he said.
'It's a pity we didn't put them away because we were the
better side but the outcome still leaves us in a great position
to qualify. It will be a very interesting run-in though.'
Croatia's next match is at home to Estonia on Sept. 8, when
Russia host Macedonia while England entertain Israel.