Once again, the two contenders for the top spot met, this time in Group B. The Germans were unchanged following their relatively comprehensive defeat of Poland, while Petric, ineffective in the first game against co-hosts Austria was replaced by Rakitic, as they changed into a more cohesive formation. A generally lacklustre performance by the whole side reduced the expectations of the fans especially with match against the tournament favourites up next.
Naturally both sides were looking to exploit each others weaknesses, with German left-back Marcel Jansen the focus of much criticism along with Jens Lehmann’s capability with the long-range shot. In contrast, Luka Modric’s consistency in controlling the tempo throughout a game and the capability of the whole side to withstand a fast paced game was also questioned. The Germans looked to use Ballack’s vision to progress further up the pitch as Jansen’s cross reached the box and Gomez nicely set it up for Podolski to volley, but his effort was blocked. The Croatians looked to make their own impact on the game with a fine passing move ending in Mertesacker heading the ball clear under heavy pressure earning the centre back a free kick. Later Metzelder, the injury prone Real Madrid player, had to execute a perfectly timed sliding tackle on Olic, as he ran onto a testing through-ball from Modric.
The Croatian pressure continued as Kranjcar spread the play to the left flank where fine interplay involving Rakitic, Pranjic and Olic drew the German defence deep into the box allowing space for a fine cross to the far post to be made. Srna connected ahead of Jansen who was poor positionally, and fired past Jens Lehmann, who had no chance. Further Croatian possession saw Rakitic work the ball into the box and an Olic knockdown into a large hole in the German defence allowed Kranjcar to shoot but pressure from Jansen saw him fire over in a fine chance. But the Germans came back as Ballack’s free-kick, perhaps the second decent dead ball shot since Pirlo against Holland a few days back, was saved by Pletikosa.
After a much delayed corner, due to the referee attempting to stop any shoving and shirt pulling, Frings whipped in a decent corner, only for Metzelder to head over. Corluka beat Jansen with ease and ran down the line with no opposition. The Manchester City full-back passed across the edge of the box and the ball ended up at the feet of Olic who lifted a pass into the stride of Kranjcar, who controlled with his chest and volleyed, albeit it straight at Jens Lehmann, who saved brilliantly. From the resulting corner, Lehmann was forced to punch under pressure as Bilic’s side were on the ascendancy as the first half ended. The lack of urgency in the German midfield in comparison to their competitive, hungry opponents was perhaps the key reason as to their lack of success in the opening 45 minutes.
The poor Jansen was replaced by ‘speed merchant’ Odonkor as Germany looked to assert their influence on the game. This was evident in the early stages of the second half as Lahm’s cross was awkwardly punched out by Pletikosa as Ballack lifted the rebound over. Modric then tested Lehmann with a dipping shot after a move involving Ballack broke down for Germany. There was possession but a lack of end product as Gomez ran towards the box, after Corluka mistimed his interception, but his cross was behind Klose. But as they began to improve on their first half showing, a cross from Rakitic deflected off Podolski towards the goal. Lehmann managed to touch it onto the post but the ball rebounded fortuitously for Olic to tap into an empty net as the tournament favourites were thrown into despair.
Yet they almost drew level as Ballack spread the ball wide to substitute Schweinsteiger, who teased his marker and fired a low shot across the goal mouth which Pletikosa did well to divert from the goal. Yet the Germans hit back once more as Lahm crossed from the left and Ballack headed back across the goal with aid of a deflection and Podolski volleyed in past the keeper to level with David Villa, who also has 3 goals as the Germans mounted a late fight back. Yet any hopes of scoring an equalizer were dashed as the volatile Schweinsteiger reacted to Jerko Leko’s cynical challenge.
The German shoved his fellow substitute, who held his face as he collapsed dramatically, despite no contact being made against his face, but referee Frank De Bleeckere did not hesitate to send off the left winger as Joachim Low’s side suffered their first defeat, which significantly reduced their chances of them finishing top and avoiding Portugal in the quarter finals. The game ended as Germany tried to launch the ball into the Croatia box from a free kick after Luka Modric was booked for a poor challenge on Torsten Frings, a reported Arsenal target. The 31 year old Werder Bremen man broke up play well on occasions but was unable to stop the tides of Croatia attacks as his side failed to really make an impact until the dying moments.
Croatia celebrated with their charismatic lawyer-guitarist-manager Slaven Bilic as the side progressed into the quarter finals, adding their name to a list of favourites including Portugal and Holland (after initial impressive showings), whilst temporarily chalking off Germany’s hopes, at least in the eyes of the tabloid media. The ineffective performances of Gomez and Klose will see calls for Podolski, best young player in the 2006 World Cup, to be used in a striking role rather than the left win position he currently occupies. There he doesn’t provide the defensively frail Marcel Jansen protection as shown frequently as the Bayern Munich full back was repeatedly beaten in Germany’s opening two games. Fritz was anonymous on the right flank while Odonkor is unnecessary unless a counter-attacking formation is utilised. The loss of Bernd Schneider now appears to be revealing itself against greater opposition.
Perhaps this first upset of Euro 2008 will be the first of many concerning Europe’s giants as the Croats try to win it for the injured Eduardo. Bilic looks very tactically sharp following his very effective changes from the opening game. The Croatian Football Federation president Vlatko Markovic must be privately congratulating himself on securing Bilic’s signature until 2010.
Croatia 2 – 1 Germany FT
The Austrian side performed heroically in their opening game and were by no means humiliated by Croatia as expected by most viewers. After co-hosts were knocked out yesterday, they will be wishing for a different fate with all hopes the hosts of resting on the lowest ranked side in the tournament. Both sides need a victory to remain within a chance of qualifying, while a loss would have been disaster. Obviously we have to mention the sole English presence with Howard Webb and his team of officials refereeing this seemingly unglamorous tie.
A change from the 3-5-2 formation to the standard 4-4-2 allowed Hickersberger greater defensive stability in what was expected to be a physical contest. Austria could have countered as Korkmaz found room on the left flank but the winger delayed as Austria built up some possession with playmaker Ivanschitz tak ing the first shot of the game, but it dragged wide. The influential midfielder then tried his luck from 32m out, as he curled a free kick over the wall but Boruc gathered well. Later, the Polish defence, still playing a high line were caught out with a terrible back pass as Martin Harnik ran through but Celtic’s Boruc got a vital touch on his slide rule shot. The same man was denied from a few yards out after Korkmaz dribbled down the flank and cut back as the Austrian striker shot straight down the middle of the goal.
The Polish keeper was having a brilliant game as he denied the Austrians a third time with Poland cut open with a finely weighted ball as Leitgeb was played onside by the defence but his shot was too close to Boruc, who rushed out swiftly to close the angle once more. Soon after Ivanschitz hit a rising shot from the edge of the area as Austria looked to take the lead in this open game, where defence was obviously not the priority. Once more Boruc came to the rescue, rushing out and denying Garics the chance to cross back into the danger area.
Even the Austrian centre back Stranzl roamed forward and he beat his markers when surrounded in the corner with a delightful nutmeg but his pull back was behind everyone. The lack of defensive pressure and slow tempo allowed Leitgeb to rush forward but he failed to control the cross as it ran away from him. Immediately the dominant Poles were shocked as Roger Guerreiro, who scored his first goal for his adopted country after a smart ball to the back post was controlled by Saganowski, who then cut inside and shot but goalkeeper Jurgen Macho’s touch moved the ball away from the goal and unfortunately the last defender as the Brazilian-pole tapped in the rebound. There were claims of offside despite the keeper and the last defender getting a touch before it reached Roger.
The dominant Austrians regressed as the momentum swung and Poland began to see more of the ball with Krzynowek taking a shot from distance, which the ex-Sunderland man Macho saving to his left with ease. The first half ended as Austria saw another sight of goal with Stranzl at the far post stretching for Leitgeb’s over-hit free-kick. In a bid to improve on their lead, Leo Beenhakker swapped the suicidal defensive capabilities (or lack of) for Golanski, who struggled against Germany’s Fritz in their opening game, a player who was anonymous in today’s earlier kick-off. The substitute brought down Ivanschitz causing penalty claims which Howard Webb rejected.
A fine pass from Guerreiro released Ebi Smolarek, whose shot was spilled by Macho but cleared on the second attempt. Jurgen Macho saved from close range after Bak volleyed from a Guerreiro cross, and he added to this one with a punch from Lewandowski’s follow up. As Poland pressed, it was Macho that was busy once more, having to tip over Krzynowek’s long range free-kick. Austria had six minutes left to salvage a draw as Proedl headed wide from a corner. Fatigue set in as their play was never as aggressive or high-paced as their opening 30 minutes. Yet in the dying minutes of injury time, Howard Webb gave the host nation a penalty, after pushing and shoving in the box, and the veteran Ivica Vastic, Austrian player of the year, smashed home the penalty to equalize. Apparently the lucky chap will receive a lifetime supply of beer just for scoring. Yet Hickersberger and his side will rue their missed opportunities in the opening half, hich could have given them a priceless win.
The host nation will play Germany in a local derby in their final group match with need of a win to have any chance of qualifying but have defender Proedl suspended. An exciting finale aided the Austrians and added further excitement to a tournament that has burst into life. Imagine the scenes if they qualify for the next round. Just imagine.
Austria 1 – 1 Poland FT
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