Author`s name Alex Naumov

Russia holds Croatia to 0-0 draw

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, Reuters reports.

Hiddink, 60, who signed a two-year contract worth 4 million euros last year to head the Russian team, said he is likely to stick with the same lineup for tonight that won last Saturday's match against Andorra in Russia's St. Petersburg, when the Russians stormed the Andorrans 4-0.

But the vastly experienced coach said the stunning 4-0 victory over Andorra could not be compared to a match against group leaders Croatia, and only tonight's game would demonstrate the level of play the Russian team has actually achieved.

Russia's national team failed to qualify last year for the World Cup in Germany, and Russian fans are hopeful that Hiddink, who previously guided the South Korean and Australian teams to unprecedented successes, will take the team to the UEFA Euro 2008 cup finals in Austria and Switzerland.

In other Group E qualifying matches on Wednesday Andorra will receive Israel at home, and England desperately needs a win in their away game with Estonia, reports.

Translated by Alexander Timoshik

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