Was it just me, or did you all also get a sense of déjà vu when watching today’s action from Group B? I felt like I was witnessing yesterday’s games all over again.
• Both yesterday’s first game and today’s first game ended 1-0, and yesterday’s second game and today’s second game both ended 2-0.
• Co-host Switzerland played first yesterday and controlled the balance of play against their opponent, the Czech Republic, but couldn’t manage to equalize despite their best efforts. Co-host Austria played first today and the same conditions applied; they dominated Croatia for large periods of the game and had their chances to score, but just couldn’t put anything on the board. In both cases, the favorites were outplayed but still won.
• Portugal and Germany, trendy picks to go far in this tournament, struggled to put their lesser opposition away in the second games of the day. They both won 2-0, but neither looked particularly convincing in doing so. Portugal didn’t offer much going forward at times, and Germany gave up plenty of possession and several chances (mostly from long range).
Austria came out to play this afternoon against Croatia, starting the game in an aggressive 3-5-2 formation with the outside center backs going forward whenever the opportunity presented itself.
They certainly looked lively and energetic, but René Aufhauser went a bit too far in the 4th minute when he took down the stocky Ivica Olic inside the box. It was clearly a penalty kick, and the ironic thing is that Olic wasn’t really in a position to cause much trouble and Aufhauser had no reason to get tangled up in that challenge. New Tottenham signing Luka Modric slotted home the penalty — the fastest converted in the history of the European Championships — and at that point, the only question looked to be how many goals would Croatia score in the game.
Croatia continued to control the game for the next 15 minutes or so but generated very little in their attacking third. Mladen Petric had Croatia’s best chance for the rest of the game midway through the first half when he was wide open on the left side about 15 yards from goal and settled down a cross with his body, but completely wasted it when he blasted the bouncing ball high and well wide.
Austria’s players, to their credit, didn’t hang their heads or back down whatsoever. After Petric’s miss, it was pretty much all Austria all the time. Martin Harnik was dangerous on the right side up front all game and laid some nice horizontal passes for onrushing Austrian midfielders, but they couldn’t get much on goal.
Josef Hickersberger’s three second-half substitutions all had an impact on the game for Austria, and the co-hosts continued to try and ram down the Croatian door. The tournament’s oldest player, 38-year old Ivica Vastic, was dangerous alongside the creative Andreas Ivanschitz in the center of midfield. Croatia had little answer for the Austrian onslaught except to sit 9 and 10 men behind the ball and send it long down field whenever they could.
Croatia did do a decent job of keeping Austria’s attack largely to the outside and made it tough to penetrate into a good position in the center of the field. Most of the Austrian shots were from the perimeter and were handled well by Croatia’s goalkeeper, Stipe Pletikosa. His back line won nearly every critical ball served into the area, but numerous failed clearances gave Austria the ball right back on the outside.
Right at the death, Austria came within inches of leveling the game at 1 when Roman Kienast’s redirection of a low out-swinging free kick from Ivanschitz went narrowly wide. Croatia stole the victory, but they won’t complain. If Austria continues to play like they did today, they’ll earn a point somewhere in their last two games. Croatia will need to put it into another gear; they play Germany next and will come away with nothing if they turn in the same kind of performance. Austria outshot Croatia 16-10, including 6-1 in terms of shots on target, and Croatia’s only effort on goal was the early spot kick.
Germany will head into that game also with three points after getting by Poland 2-0 today. The oft-criticized and Polish-born Lukas Podolski netted both goals for his team and took home Man of the Match honors.
Podolski struggled to find his place and perform at Bayern Munich this season, but a player who scores better than a goal every two games at the international level and was the Best Young Player at the 2006 World Cup will always earn a call-up. He certainly justified his place in the starting XI today. Mario Gomez, who many believed should start up top instead of Podolski, did just that, but he was no better than average today. I’d expect to see Podolski start up front alongside his teammate at Bayern, Miroslav Klose, who was also born in Poland, instead of wide left in the game against Croatia. Bastian Schweinsteiger should slide back into that position, which is where he usually plays, and it was a shock to not see him on the field from the outset.
Podolski and Klose combined for Germany’s first tally, as the former tapped the latter’s square ball into a wide open net after 20 minutes as the two came in alone on the Polish goalkeeper, Celtic’s Artur Boruc. Where that goal was all about finesse, Podolski’s second was all power — a screaming volley from 12 yards past Boruc and into the top netting in the 72nd minute to put the game away.
Germany was in control all game long and there’s no doubt about that, but they didn’t administer the knockout blow until that 72nd minute goal. Before then, Poland was still in the match and had their chances. Leo Beenhakker’s team was able to consistently pick up the ball in midfield and work their way forward; they had 52% of possession. They just didn’t have that cutting edge when they did have numbers forward and, like Austria, wound up with mostly long range efforts that didn’t trouble Jens Lehmann. Brazilian-born Roger Guerreiro came off the bench for Poland, was an immediate sparkplug and played very well, but even his pace and ability wasn’t enough to create a goal or score himself to put his team back on equal footing.
Group B Standings (after one game):
1. Germany (3 points, +2 goal differential)
2. Croatia (3 pts, +1)
3. Austria (0 pts, -1)
4. Poland (0 pts, -2)
Play in Group C, the “Group of Death”, begins tomorrow, with Romania-France to be followed by the tastiest match of the tournament thus far, Holland-Italy. It’s a must-win game for France; they can’t afford to not take three points against the weakest team in the group and possibly fall behind right out of the gate.