I suppose it was probably too much to expect another capricious evening of confusion and disarray, and it was certainly too much to expect Austria to keep their hopes alive by shocking their illustrious neighbours. The Austrians, as the saying doesn’t really go, couldn’t score in a house of ill repute. As Alan Hansen put it: “If the Austrians had sat back and played on the break, they wouldn’t have scored. If they’d played all out attack, they wouldn’t have scored. If the Germans had left the field for 10 minutes and had a cup of tea, the Austrians still wouldn’t have scored”.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of not only this match, but of Austria’s entire Euro 2008 adventure. Apart from making a sluggish start in the first half against Croatia, Austria played with passion, creativity, organisation, and will to win. Unfortunately none of these guarantee you goals. It must have been incredibly frustrating for Austria watching the Germans create absolutely nothing for Podolski and Klose, they must have wanted to ask the Germans if they could borrow one of them for five minutes, seeing as they weren’t using them.
Knowing the Austrians luck, if the Germans had agreed to lend them a striker, they would have got Mario Gomez, who unfortunately would fit seamlessly in to the current Austrian set-up. The only clearcut chance created by Germany all night fell to Gomez inside the first three minutes, and he robbed the Greeks of a title they seemed nailed-on for by achieving the miss of the tournament so far, failing to tap-in to an empty net from four yards out with no defender in sight.
The rest of the match set into a pattern, Austria got the ball efficiently to their wingers, who consistently got past their full-backs and put in dangerous crosses. To absolutely no-one. The Germans, who only needed a point, could barely be bothered as it became quite clear a draw was near-enough guaranteed. When your captain is as model a professional as Michael Ballack however, nothing gets left to chance, and he stepped up early in the second half to rocket in the tournament’s first successful free kick.
That was that, and there really was no suggestion that it was going to change, but whilst the outcome was predictable, the evening was not without its interesting diversions. Firstly there was the Austrian players accommodation of their German guests. At face value the game didn’t appear dirty, and yet there were several strange incidents of the TV director suddenly cutting to a shot, usually some yards away from the ball, of a mysteriously flattened German. Time and again the referee was distracted from the play, and would suddenly arrive on the scene wearing a puzzled expression, as he found an injured German player, and no red shirt within 10 yards of him. The whole thing was mystifying, I can’t possibly speculate on what brought these episodes about.
Could it be that the two managers were debating this point when they suddenly decided to launch into a bout of touchline handbags, for which they were both despatched to the stand. Once the referee had intervened, the two managers became united in their disdain for the offical instead, and bonded like two cell-ins about to start a five-stretch together. On reaching the stand, Joachim Low managed to bump into his Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and looked as though he may take a seat beside her. Moments later, Low had found an alternative seat beside Oliver Bierhoff, perhaps having realised that the country’s leader might not have been the ideal companion had the match not gone Germany’s way.
Also adding a touch of the irregular to this game was Austrian defender Emanuel Pogatetz, who gives one the impression that he may not be of this world. He looks like the madman on the bus that you pray doesn’t sit next to you, terrifyingly wide-eyed and unstable. Pogatetz of course plays for Middlesbrough, and when you study his erratic behaviour along with that of Turkey’s Tuncay, you do have to worry about the effect the town’s infamous fumes are having on non-natives of Teesside.
Pogatetz at one stage picked up the ball and attempted to take a bite out of it. Now I don’t know about you, but if I was an attacker that is one opponent I would be giving a wide berth. Personally, I would be perfectly comfortable with any accusations of lying too deep, “Sorry boss, I am doing my best to get further forward but you see the thing is there’s a serial killer at centre-back, and I have a family”. Maybe Pogatetz was so fed up at being part of Austria’s hopeless campaign that he’d asked the manager to sub him and been refused, so now thought summoning the men in white coats represented his best chance of escape.
As I said, predictable but not uneventful. The Germans were presumably more than a little nervous at the potential humiliation of losing this one, which perhaps explains why they weren’t exactly fully committed, but with Portugal now looming the Germans aren’t exactly taking with them an abundance of confidence or momentum from this group.
Croatia on the other hand are flying. Having already secured the group, they made nine changes to the side that beat Germany but, unlike Portugal on Monday, Croatia appeared to have used the tactic to their own advantage. Instead of looking like players sent out to make a token gesture in a meaningless match, the Croat reserves had the look of a side motivated to prove themselves worthy of a place in the side and to play their part in a genuine team effort. Or maybe it’s just that Croatia’s reserves are much more capable than Portugal’s, who knows?
Whatever the reason, Croatia very impressively disposed of Poland with a 1-0 win that should have been many more, and completed a perfect group programme. Their goalscorer Ivan Klasnic, still wearing protection after a kidney transplant just last year, could have had a hat-trick on the night but for more heroics from the goalkeeper of the tournament, and the only Pole to cover himself in anything like glory at Euro 2008, Celtic’s Artur Boruc. In the end the striker had to settle just for scoring the winner. Klasnic’s story of triumph over adversity sums up the mentality of the whole Croatian team, who are showing an extraordinary unity which is threatening to overcome both the perceived gulf in class between them and their more famous rivals, and the loss of their best striker, Eduardo Da Silva.
The Croatian celebrations at the final whistle once again revealed the togetherness of their squad, and the respect they have for their coach, Slaven Bilic, who looks by far and away the strongest leader at this tournament. The entire squad took a lap of honour, just as they had against Germany, and every individual player seemed keen to embrace Bilic, and he to reciprocate. Croatia now have more confidence and momentum than any team besides Holland, but the difference between their soaring team spirit and the ever-fragile Dutch squad is cavernous.
With their next test being a quarter-final against the gritty Turks on friday, Croatia will now be favourites to reach the semi-finals, which is a stage they have never yet breached. If they make it, they are almost certain to be amongst those to whom lifting trophies is the norm, and it is then we will then find out if their squad possesses the one quality we can’t yet be sure about – belief.
It was generally another excellent night for the BBC, with Martin O’Neill and Alan Hansen in sparkling form, particularly during the half-time interval. When asked about the incident involving the German and Austrian managers, O’Neill dismissively replied “Well I don’t blame them for taking no notice of the 4th official, they’re always wrong”.
As the second half approached, Gary Lineker attempted to take back the reins ready for his handover to the commentary team, but was ignored completely by O’Neill and Hansen who preceded to lean over Alan Shearer and conduct their own in-depth discussion on the German second-half tactics. It’s little moments of lost control like this that O’Neill provides, and that makes the BBC coverage so much more entertaining than ITV’s joyless efforts.
The beeb boys did however let themselves down, right at the end of the show as they were looking ahead to tonight’s Group C conclusion. Hansen and O’Neill were almost wetting themselves at the prospect of France v Italy! O’Neill even made the astonishingly misguided observation that ‘The tournament starts tomorrow’. What? Are we ever going to get away from this boot-licking of the football aristocracy? Anyway, could someone please explain to me what they were getting so excited about? Italy v France will be a dead-rubber, and a guaranteed bore-fest of all time, should Romania score an early goal, and they both realise they’re going home.
The truth is, the clue to this evening lies within the following statement: For the final round of Group C to deliver any excitement, it is reliant on the spirit of fair play being invoked to the full – by the Dutch.
I shall say no more.