Euro 2008: Croatia Open Their Account with an Unconvincing and Uninspiring Win.
Having masterminded an impressive victory over England at Wembley to qualify for the tournament, Croatia's enigmatic and unconventional coach Slaven Bilic has been in a bullish mood in the lead up to his side's first game.
Croatia kicked off the game as overwhelming favourites and as plausible challengers to the other bigger guns. Bilic's confidence in his charges did not look misplaced when, in the fourth minute, the influential Luka Modric picked up the ball on the left side of the field deep in the Austrian half and had the vision to slide the ball through to his compatriot Ivica Olic. Olic was subsequently brought down by Rene Aufhauser for an indisputable penalty.
Modric calmly picked his spot and stroked the ball low down the middle of the goal, sending Jurgen Macho the wrong way. A great start for Croatia and a disastrous one for the Austrians, whose fans were in very good voice at that point.
In all truth, Austria had barely settled into the game by the time Robert Kovac played in Olic in the 14th minute and Joachim Standfest headed Dario Srna's inswinging corner off the line two minutes later. Modric was orchestrating Croatia's football from deep, with Srna and Pranjic's guile on the flanks also causing problems for the home side.
In fact, Austria's best effort of the first quarter of the match had been left-footed Roman Proedl's ambitious 35-yard half-volley, which was always rising too quickly. By the time Jurgen Saeumel was booked for shirt-tugging in the 21st minute, Croatia had enjoyed 61 percent of the possession—it would have been no surprise if they had put another two or three past Macho before the interval.
The home fans vented their frustration at their side's ineptitude on 26 minutes after a comic mix-up on the left involving Ronald Gercaliu and Roland Linz.
Nevertheless, a minute later the Austrians woke up and gave the Croatians a reminder that the game wasn't over, as Prodl headed over skipper Ivanschitz's free-kick wide from eight yards.
A controversial and perhaps game-defining incident was Dutch referee Pieter Vink's decision not to caution Middlesbrough's Emmanuel Pogatetz, who had received a yellow card for his protests over the penalty for a blatant foul on the tireless Olic.
With Austria in the ascendancy, Austria's players and fans would certainly have been buoyed by having a numerical advantage.
Despite Austria's tangible improvement, Corluka set up Petric after 35 minutes with a great crossfield ball, which the forward contrived to wastefully blast over when a calmer approach would have resulted in a second for his side.
Modric, who had looked classy and assured during the first exchanges, was dropping deeper and Croatia were inviting pressure from their opposition instead of looking to finish off the match. Joachim Standfest should have made them pay for this negativity three minutes before halftime, but could not find the target with his header when expertly picked out by Gercaliu.
Slaven Bilic was relieved to hear the halftime whistle sound, and it was his duty to encourage his players to rediscover the fluid, fearless football they had earlier produced with consummate ease. Yet it was the Austrians who would start the second half as they ended the first.
Robert Kovac was soon booked for a foul on Linz, and Luka Modric's lack of physicality in midfield was being exploited. Saeumel and Ivanschitz were combining to good effect on the left side for Austria and forcing Croatia's impressive, if somewhat theatrical, right winger Darijo Srna to track back.
On the other flank, Harnik flashed a dangerous ball across the face of Pletikosa's goal.
In the 61st minute, both coaches made their first substitutions of the tournament. Bilic replaced the ineffective Krancjar for Knezevic, whilst his opposite number Josef Hickesberger replaced Saeumel with the oldest player of the tournament, fan favourite Vastic.
Seven minutes later, in an attempt to nullify the impact a sometimes mercurial but often frustrating Modric was beginning to have on the game, Hickesberger made a second change, as Korkmaz replaced Gercaliu.
Together with Kienast, who replaced the tireless Linz on 74 minutes, the three Austrian substitutes gave their side impetus, especially when Croatian goalkeeper Pletikosa struggled to hold a powerful Vastic header after a clever ball from Kienast.
The substitutions that an inexperienced Bilic made had less impact, as the Croatians continued to hold on with the clock ticking down. However, the Austrians couldn't make their domination count, and their last chance of salvaging a much-deserved point was squandered by Kienast, who flicked a header agonisingly wide when set up by the hugely impressive Ivanschitz.
On this evidence, Austria can give Germany a fright, and will certainly trouble Poland if, a big if, they are more clinical in the final third.
Croatia, at their fluent best in short spurts, will be pleased with a clean sheet and an opening victory, but will know that they must do better if they are to have an impact on the tournament. It will be essential for them to involve Srna more often and to allow Luka Modric to play in a more advanced and creative role.
The next set of matches will say a lot for the chances of both sides of progression to the latter stages.
Austria 0-1 Croatia
MOM - Robert Kovac - handled Austria's more physical players very well, cleaned up at the back on numerous occasions and showed his experience when others around him panicked.
Macho 6; Prodl 6, Stranzl 5, Pogatetz 5; Standfest 4, Aufhausel 5, Saeumel 6 (61 - Vastic 7), Ivanschitz 8, Gercaliu 6 (68 - Korkmaz 8); Harnik 7, Linz6 (74 - Kienast 6)
Yellow card - Prodl, Pogatetz, Saeumel
Pletikosa 6; Corluka 5, R Kovac 8, Simunic 6, Pranjic 7; Srna 7, Modric 7, N Kovac 5, Krancjar 4 (61 - Knezevic 5); Olic 7 (82 - Vukojevic 4), Petric 6 (71 - Budan 5)
Yellow card - R Kovac
Goal - Modric - 4(p)
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