Some tournaments are feel-good tournaments, and some aren’t. I’m starting to get the feeling that Euro 2008 isn’t going to be one of these. In the opening match yesterday, Switzerland pressed and pressed the Czechs, but were unable to find a way through their massed defence. Earlier this evening a feeling of deflation fell over Vienna as Austria were narrowly beaten by a Croatia team that scant deserved all three of the points from an entertaining match in which they were often the second best team. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that scarcely twenty-four hours into the competition, both of the host nations sit on the brink of being eliminated from the tournament, and such an elimination may prove to be damaging to interest levels later on.
It looked, at the start of the match, as if it was going to be a stroll in the park for Croatia. Just four minutes had been played when Rene Aufhauser clumsily clattered into Ivila Ovic, and Spurs’ new signing put the penalty away, although even the penalty was dangerously close to goalkeeper Jurgen Macho, even though he was diving away from the ball. After that, Croatia dominated the early stages of the match, and had several chances to kill the game off for good, most notably when Mladen Petric shot over the crossbar with a first time shot when he had plenty of time to control the ball. Had that shot gone in, it is reasonable to say that Croatia might have gone on to run up a cricket score, but when the Austrians started to tentatively find their feet and push forward, they found the Crotian defence to be more brittle than one might have expected. Emanuel Pogatetz was fortunate in not being sent off for a grizzly bear-esque attack that ended in him trying to play him like a big bass drum, but the Croats were clearly now rattled, frequently giving possession away needlessly and allowing themselves to be pressed back into the middle third of the pitch.
After a slow start to the second half, the same pattern emerged again. Croatia seemed too lackadaisical in their own half of the pitch, clearing aimlessly up field frequently, and allowing the Austrians to reclaim possession of the ball very easily. The only significant difference between the two teams was the finishing. For all of their pressure, Austria struggled to find a good final ball into the penalty area. On many occasions, Croatian defenders, when under pressure, simply belted the ball out of play or conceded needless free kicks, but they were normally able to clear the ball without too much difficulty. Korkmaz had a shot well saved by the Croatian goalkeeper Pletikosa, and in the dying seconds Kienast headed narrowly wide from a good position when it seemed easier to find the back of the net. Ulitimately, then, a good result for the Croats, even if their performance didn’t merit a win. For Austria, though, an impossibly unfortunate result which leaves them with an absolute mountain to climb – they will have to beat Poland and get at the very least some sort of result of their match with Germany to have any chance of getting through to the next round. On the evidence of tonight’s match, they deserved much better than they got.