Croatia opened their Euro 2008 account with a predictable but unconvincing 1-0 victory over co-hosts Austria at the Ernst-Happel Stadium in Vienna on Sunday.
There were no surprises in a match between one of the outsiders for a run to the title and a team ranked 92nd in the FIFA world rankings — below even the likes of Guatemala, Libya and Trinidad and Tobago.
Despite the victory, Croatian coach Slaven Bilic revealed his players weren’t too happy after a match that saw them hanging on during the last half hour.
“First of all I’m glad. I’m happy that after so many years we’ve finally won a game at such a great tournament,” said Bilic, who was a player the last time Croatia won a game at the European Championships, back in 1996. The last time they won a game at a big tournament, though, was the 2002 World Cup.
“I’ve got to congratulate the players for playing so well, this will certainly boost our self confidence for the next two games [against Poland and Germany].”
It took only four minutes for Austria to be exposed as the minnows that they are in this competition as Rene Aufhauser clumsily bundled over Ivica Olic in the box.
Defender Emanuel Pogatetz was booked for protesting over-zealously but there was little doubt that referee Pieter Vink from the Netherlands had got it spot on.
So too Luka Modric, who calmly slotted the ball down the middle as goalkeeper Jurgen Macho dived to his right.
Austria coach Josef Hickersberger said things could not have started worse.
“This was the worst possible start we could have had in the opening match of a big tournament,” he said. “After four minutes we conceded a goal and we took time to recover from that.”
Croatia bossed the early stages without looking like adding to their advantage while it took the co-hosts almost half an hour to muster their first effort on target.
Even then, center-back Sebastian Proedl was wayward with a header from captain Andreas Ivanschitz’s free-kick.
Croatia should have doubled their lead on 35 minutes when a deep cross from Vedran Corluka fell to Mladen Petric at the back post, but he lashed a left foot volley way off target when composure, and maybe even a touch to bring the ball under control, was needed.
Austria had a brief period of pressure before the break when Croatia goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa palmed away a dangerous cross from Joachim Standfest and then Josip Simunic cut out a center from Martin Marnik.
Pletikosa was then called into action again to punch clear Ivanschitz’s corner before Standfest headed high and wide with a far post header from a deep cross.
Modric got behind the Croatia defence on the hour mark after a mistake from Pogatetz but Martin Stranzl sniffed out the danger and cleared the Spurs man’s cross before Olic could get to it.
Just as had happened in the first half, Austria came more into things later on and the introduction of Umit Korkmaz and Ivica Vastic added a spark to the hosts.
Austria caused a few scares for the Croatians, who actually came closest to scoring when Igor Budan’s flick from a cross was deflected just past the near post.
Moments later another substitute Roman Kienast almost leveled but his flicked header drifted wide.
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