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Barcelona 7 hours ago
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By ESPN Staff
Nov 25, 2007

World Cup: Bilic wary

Croatia manager Slaven Bilic admits England were the team he least wanted to be paired with in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers despite ending their Euro 2008 hopes at Wembley on Wednesday.

Croatia beat England both home and away, culminating in the 3-2 midweek victory which sealed England's fate - as well as that of manager Steve McClaren.

Whoever is appointed to succeed McClaren will have an early chance to succeed where the former Middlesbrough boss failed, while matches against the Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Andorra also await in Group Six.

But Bilic is not pleased to pit his wits against the English again and insists he was keen to avoid a side he believes were the best of the tier-two nations in today's draw in Durban.

'(When I saw the draw) I was saying 'Oh no!',' Bilic told Sky Sports News.

'Everyone in Croatia was saying 'give us England again' but I wanted to avoid England.

'It is a very, very hard draw because they are by far the best team from the second pot.

'The only team I wanted to avoid was England. We are not afraid of them but they have got a terrific team and brilliant players. They should gel and they are going to gel.'

The Republic of Ireland have been pitted against reigning world champions Italy in Group Eight, where they will also line up against Bulgaria, Cyprus, Georgia and newcomers Montenegro.

But it is the match against the Azzurri which is sure to grab the headlines.

Ray Houghton scored the winner in the fixture in USA 94 and he expects the current generation to give their all against the same opposition this time around.

He said: 'The reality is we're a team in transition at the moment. We're waiting for a new manager to come in and they'll be happy with that although there are some tough games in there.

'We might not have the strength in depth of a nation like England but we'll give it our best go. If we finish second in the group it'll have been a very good campaign for us.'

Northern Ireland have produced some memorable performances in the last couple of years but eventually failed to qualify for Austria and Switzerland, face top seeds the Czech Republic as well as Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and San Marino.

Striker Warren Feeney expects a challenging time as Nigel Worthington's team bid to book their place in South Africa but insists the spirit in the squad remains high.

He told: 'The Czech Republic are a real force in the world and Poland are always round about, but we're full of confidence going into it.

'Expectations levels have risen, we were gutted not getting qualification but the whole of Northern Ireland was buzzing at where we finished.

'We always play better against big teams, we've proven at Windsor Park that we can beat anyone, and it doesn't come much bigger than the Czech Republic.

'Hopefully we can pick up a few things on the road - we're confident.'

Wales assistant manager Roy Evans will be helping John Toshack plot a path past 2006 World Cup finalists Germany, in a group which also contains Russia, Finland, Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein.

A 0-0 draw with Germany in the side's Euro 2008 qualifier last month provides some reason to be cheerful, but the former Liverpool manager concedes the side have a lot to do to be genuine contenders.

'It's not the greatest draw,' he said.

'They're probably the best team in Europe at the moment, albeit we had a good result against them last time out.

'And with Russia following them they are probably the two favourites to qualify. Our only hope now is that these young lads (in the Wales squad) - who are already internationals - really become international players in terms of their ability.

'They need to learn a bit in the next 12 months.

'We've had a couple of good results but we've got a lot of youngsters and they need to develop over time.'