The ghosts of the recent past will haunt France and England as the former world champions embark on crucial midweek 2010 World Cup qualifiers.
Memories of England’s sole triumph are sepia-tinted in going back to 1966 — but at least they picked up three points, albeit at the expense of little Andorra, in their opening game, while a directionless France were capitulating 3-1 in Austria.
Memories of France’s 1998 triumph are a little fresher — but in footballing terms they were eons away from that level in Vienna, conceding a trio of soft goals that make a win over Serbia at the Stade de France on Wednesday imperative.
But it is England’s ghosts that are chronologically the closest as they head for Zagreb to take on a Croatian side that did the double over them in the Euro 2008 qualifiers.
Those defeats exposed the gulf that has opened up between the undeniable kudos of a domestic game crammed with foreigners and a national team hyped up as comprising a ”golden generation”, but which stubbornly refused to glitter under Sven-Goran Eriksson and then the hapless Steve McClaren.
Under the sergeant-majorish approach of Fabio Capello and his new order, England know another failure for a major tournament is just not acceptable — and Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard recognises as much.
”I think we’ve underachieved as a group over the past couple of years — that’s a fact,” acknowledged Lampard.
”Technically they are very good,” said Lampard of the Croatians.
”Everyone was up in arms that they beat us twice in the Euro 2008 qualifiers but they ended up being the dark horses of the Euros. They aren’t to be taken lightly.
”Having three points already in the bag certainly helps.”
For Capello, ”Croatia will be another game, not like Andorra.”
But with the potential banana skin of Andorra safely negotiated, the Italian said he believed his squad would now show their mettle.
”Are England good enough to get a result? Yes, I think so. I am confident in my team,” he insisted.
With only the group winner guaranteed a place in the finals in South Africa — the best runners-up face play-offs — a draw would appear a minimum requirement against their main rivals.
The Croatians — since bolstered by the news that Slaven Bilic will stay in the hot seat and not return to former club West Ham — brushed aside Kazakhstan, whom England host on October 11, in their opener.
France, meanwhile, appeared still shell-shocked from their dismal Euro showing as they collapsed in Austria, a loss that ramped up the pressure on beleaguered coach Raymond Domenech, who nonetheless remains in defiant mood.
”This event is not based on one game. Of course I’d rather have taken the points — but who said we were going to win every match? We’ll be ready to take on Serbia on Wednesday,” insisted the eccentric Domenech, adding he believed the will to win burned strongly within a squad in a period of transition.
”This is a young team but I am not worried about it,” Domenech concluded.
Even so, the French group looks an open one with the wildcard Serbs having seen off the Faroes and a gifted but unpredictable Romania having failed to benefit from the French setback in sliding to a 3-0 home loss to Lithuania.
Lithuania now face the Austrians while Domenech will hope that a visit to the French camp of world champion keeper Fabien Barthez will boost morale.
”He has the requisite qualities and can pass on his experience,” says Domenech.
Germany, meanwhile, are seemingly on the up once more having reached the final of Euro 2008, and began their World Cup road to South Africa with a 6-0 swatting of Liechtenstein.
Joachim Loew now takes his charges to Finland, promising more of the same before group rivals Russia, who on Wednesday host Wales, come calling next month.
”We will go for the win and will try to play attacking football in Finland as we did in Liechtenstein — though the Finns are a much better side,” said Loew.
World champions Italy host Georgia without midfield stalwart Gennaro Gattuso, who injured his wrist in training, while defenders Fabio Grosso and Alessandro Gamberini are also out having suffered injuries in the fortuitous 2-1 weekend win in Cyprus. — Sapa-AFP