Euro '08 Preview–Group B

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):

June 8:

Austria vs. Croatia (Noon; Ernst Happel Stadion, Vienna)

Germany vs. Poland (2:45; Wörthersee Stadion, Klagenfurt)

June 12:

Croatia vs. Germany (Noon; Wörthersee Stadion, Klagenfurt)

Austria vs. Poland (2:45; Ernst Happel Stadion, Vienna)

June 16:

Austria vs. Germany (2:45; Ernst Happel Stadion, Vienna)

Poland vs. Croatia (2:45; Wörthersee Stadion, Klagenfurt)

Austria:

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.

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