Last night, Austria followed Switzerland out of Euro 2008 with a performance which, whilst not lacking in heart and courage, ultimately showed up the gap in quality between themselves and the tournament favourites. Germany eventually eased their way into the quarter-finals with a win from a match in which they didn’t play particularly well and will now play Portugal in the quarter-finals, whilst Croatia finished as the group winners with three wins out of three, and will take on Turkey.
It was asking too much to expect another pair of classic matches, but Austria’s naivete going forward was almost breathtaking. They continually managed, without too much opposition, to get the ball into the final third of the pitch but failed completely to get the ball into dangerous areas or work themselves into positions that they could worry the Germans from. On several occasions, the surprisingly benevolent German defence allowed them plenty of space on the edge of the penalty area but their shots were always charged down. Austria, ultimately weren’t good enough.
The match was decided as a contest early in the second half, with one of the rare moments of quality in an otherwise tepid match, when Michael Ballack drove an absolutely unstoppable free kick into the top corner of the Austrian goal. It was the first goal of the tournament to come directly from a free kick. Proceedings might have been even more straightforward had Mario Gomez put away a simple chance from a couple of yards out early on in the game, but he spooned the ball straight up in the air and then appeared to be curiously disinterested in trying to touch the ball over the line, instead allowing an Austrian defender to clear the ball off the line.
One cannot help but wonder how this German team is going to cope with Portugal in the next round. Whilst Austria’s downfall was a lack of ability going forward (and the best that can be said of their record in the competition is that they achieved their absolute minimum aim – they were humiliated at no point in any of their three matches), Portugal have an embarrassment of attacking riches, both up front and in midfield. Germany won’t have it this easy again. Certainly their performance over the last two matches makes something of a mockery of their position as pre-tournament favourites. They will have to play much better than they have over the last two matches if they are to progress to the semi-finals or the final.
For Croatia, meanwhile, a lone goal from Ivan Klasnic was enough for the group winners to see off a lacklustre Poland side. The gulf between these two teams was perhaps demonstrated by the fact that Croatia coasted to a relatively comfortable win in spite of making nine changes for this match. Poland had a couple of decent chances with the score still tied at 0-0, but Klasnic’s goal early in the second half ended the one man resistance of Celtic’s Artur Boruc, one of the few Poland players to deserve better than to finish bottom of the group with just one point from three matches. Croatia will, of course, bring back all of their first choice players for the quarter-final against Turkey, and we can anticipate a better performance from them later in the week. It’s hardly beyond the realms of possibility that they will be facing Germany again in the semi-finals.