I’ll get right to it — here’s a look at Group B, comprised of co-hosts Austria, Croatia, Germany, and Poland. If you’re a history buff and know anything about war in Europe over the past few centuries, you’ll understand why this group could provide some of the tensest, most passionate games in the tournament.
First, the match schedule (all times Eastern):
Austria vs. Croatia (Noon; Ernst Happel Stadion, Vienna)
Germany vs. Poland (2:45; Wörthersee Stadion, Klagenfurt)
Croatia vs. Germany (Noon; Wörthersee Stadion, Klagenfurt)
Austria vs. Poland (2:45; Ernst Happel Stadion, Vienna)
Austria vs. Germany (2:45; Ernst Happel Stadion, Vienna)
Poland vs. Croatia (2:45; Wörthersee Stadion, Klagenfurt)
Coached by Josef Hickersberger, Austria will make their first appearance in the European Championships. They gained automatic entry, of course, as a co-host, but this is a country on the rise in soccer as evidenced by their run to the semifinals in last year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup.
The captain of that team, Sebastian Prödl, is a tall, commanding center back that has been included in Hickersberger’s provisional squad after scoring twice in a senior friendly against Holland on March 26 and is a very good bet to make the final cut. As you can go back and read in my preview and recap of the US-Austria quarterfinal from the U-20 World Cup, won 2-1 by Austria, I came away very impressed with Prödl (who was named to the all-tournament team by Gazzetta dello Sport) and his teammate, striker Erwin “Jimmy” Hoffer, who was deadly off the bench all tournament and scored the game-winning goal against the US. Hoffer is also part of this provisional squad, which is at 31 right now and will be trimmed down to the required 23 after tonight’s friendly against Nigeria.
Much of the team remains a mystery to the casual observer; the vast majority of players on the 31-man squad play their domestic soccer in the Austrian Bundesliga, though fans of the Premiership likely will recognize the name of Emanuel Pogatetz, who plies his trade for Middlesbrough and is the starting left-back for country and club. Several other players, Prödl included, have already finalized moves that will take them to clubs outside of Austria after this tournament finishes.
Coupled with the relative anonymity I just mentioned is the fact that Austria, like Switzerland, didn’t have to go through qualifying. Hickersberger hasn’t had to give anything away or use his full-strength lineup; his team played a whopping 12 friendlies last year and will end up playing four before they start their Euro campaign against Croatia, but you can’t take too much from those.
It would be foolish of me to speculate on a possible lineup because I simply don’t know enough about the team, but I would assume that Pogatetz, two midfielders, the captain, Andreas Ivanschitz, who also boasts a very nice left foot, and René Aufhauser, a defensive-minded player, and striker Roland Linz all will be in the starting XI. Other than that, I’d like to see Prödl right in the center of the back line and there seems to be a good possibility of that happening.
Avoiding Germany until the third and final group match could be extremely beneficial, as the Austrians aren’t likely to get anything out of that game and would have a better chance to get the points they need to advance in their first two games. The critical match is against Poland, in which one would think both teams would absolutely need a victory. In front of their home crowd, it’ll be Austria’s best opportunity for three points, and they can’t afford to let it slip by.
England fans know all about Croatia, the team that ended the Three Lions’ hopes of making it to Euro 2008 with a 3-2 victory at Wembley on the last day of qualifying in their group. Croatia had already booked their trip to this summer’s tournament as group winners and had nothing to play for, but their no-nonsense, never-quit attitude was enough to spoil England’s dreams.
Croatia is coached by Slaven Bilic, who is a hot commodity in the coaching world and already spurned advances from West Ham and several other clubs. This is a guy who speaks three different languages and has a law degree. For those who don’t know, trust me, he means business and with him at the helm, Croatia has to be taken extremely seriously.
It all starts at the top with Bilic, but he also has a lot of talent to pick from on his already-finalized roster. After his team’s uninspiring 1-0 victory over Moldova earlier this week, Bilic is considering changing from a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 for the Euros. He has the players to do this; the Croatian midfield is absolutely loaded with quality, with Niko Kovac, Ivan Rakitic, Niko Kranjcar, Darijo Srna, and Luka Modric all in the mix. Up top, Ivica Olic, Mladen Petric, and Nikola Kalinic will fight it out for what now looks like one spot. In the back, an experienced group led by Dario Šimic and Robert Kovac, as well as Manchester City’s impressive young right back, Vedran Corluka, are all capable of shutting down the opponent’s front line. Stipe Pletikosa will be between the posts, reprising his role from World Cup 2006, which ended in a disappointing early exit for his nation.
This team is loaded, and all of this is without Arsenal’s Eduardo da Silva, who led Croatia with 10 goals in qualifying but as we all remember, suffered a freak injury in January and won’t take any part in the action in June. With a knowledgeable, savvy coach in Slaven Bilic, and talent all across the field, Croatia definitely is capable of making a deep run in this tournament.
Perennial tournament favorites Germany enter Euro 2008 in their customary position. As hosts of World Cup 2006, they beat Portugal 3-1 in the third-place game and led all nations in goals scored with 14. They finished second, two points behind the Czech Republic in a ridiculously easy qualifying group for this competition and haven’t really been tested in a while on the international level.
The 26-man provisional roster named by coach Joachim Löw is stacked, and just screams 4-4-2. Jens Lehmann, of course, will be in goal, this time without the considerably large shadow of Oliver Kahn lurking behind him. If recent friendlies are any indication, Heiko Westermann and Phillip Lahm will occupy the left and right back positions, respectively, but Arne Friedrich can’t be counted out and I’d expect to see him reclaim his right back position from World Cup 2006, which would then shift Lahm over to left back. The twin towers, Per Mertesacker and Christoph Metzelder, will anchor the middle. In the midfield, Michael Ballack and the more rough-and-tumble Torsten Frings will be in the center, with Bastian Schweinsteiger and possibly David Odonkor on the wings. Up front, Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, the Best Young Player of the 2006 WC, will form one of the most lethal strike duos in the tournament.
This is a group Germany should advance from, and although it won’t be easy, there is more than enough talent here to do the job. Their first game is against Poland, a rematch of Germany’s charged, exciting 1-0 victory in the last World Cup, followed by Croatia and then Austria to close out the group stage. If they come into that game against Austria needing a victory to progress, look out, as that would be one of the must-watch games of the competition.
Closing things out on this preview of Group B, let’s get to Poland, who will also be making their first appearance in the Europe’s continental championship.
Poland won their qualifying group, which was probably the most competitive of its brethren with Portugal, Serbia, Finland, and Belgium all competing. With that said, take a look at their squad and you’ll wonder how they did that; Poland has been known in recent years to produce some very good goalkeepers and some above average strikers, but from an outside perspective, there just doesn’t appear to be much in the way of talent in the defense and in midfield.
They have a Dutch coach, Leo Beenhakker, who is as experienced as they come and has led many high-profile club teams as well as the Dutch national team. By all accounts, he’s blended a solid team together — winning a qualifying group can’t be a fluke, and even though there isn’t a lot of name recognition here, Poland will be very competitive.
I know even less about Poland than I do about Austria, so again, but here’s my educated guess as to their starting lineup based on the research I did: Artur Boruc will be in goal, although Tomasz Kuszczak and Lukasz Fabianski are also capable at that position. Michal Zewlakow will be ahead of Boruc at left back, with Jacek Bak and Mariusz Jop in the center and Marcin Wasilewski on the right. In the midfield, veteran Jacek Krzynówek will be on the left in a more advanced role, with both Mariusz Lewandowski and Dariusz Dudka sitting in holding positions and Wojciech Lobodzinski, wide right. Up front, the captain, Maciej Zurawski has a guaranteed place, alongside either Southampton’s Marek Saganowski or Euzebiusz Smolarek, who led Poland’s qualifying group in goal scoring with 9.
Group B Final Prediction (teams in bold advance):
1. Germany — 7 points
2. Croatia — 5 points
3. Austria — 2 points
4. Poland — 1 point
Tomorrow will be a busy day on the Euro 2008 front, as final rosters have to be submitted. As of right now, five of the 16 nations participating have already trimmed their squads down to the 23-man limit, so simple math tells us that 11 countries will make their final cuts tomorrow.
Here at EPL Talk, I’ll be previewing Group C, which is this year’s “Group of Death” — Holland, Italy, France, and Romania. I’m planning on handling it like I did on Monday, that is, I’ll break it down into two parts, put one up in the early afternoon and the other up by the evening. During that break, I’ll be posting the final squads for the countries that haven’t already released theirs. To keep the posts short, I’ll start by doing the nations in Group A, then a separate entry for what’s left of Group B, then Group C, and then Group D. Basically, tomorrow you’ll first see my breakdown of France and Holland, then the final rosters, then my previews of Italy and Romania.
So until then, have a good one, everybody.