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EURO 2008: Group B
by Mike Woitalla, May 23rd, 2008 4:12PM

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TAGS:  european championship, international


AUSTRIA
The host with the least


Never has a major international tournament been hosted by a team as unimpressive as Austria, which within two weeks of the Euro '08 kickoff had won one of its last 14 games.

Austria has never before reached the European Championship finals. It would not be there this time if it wasn't staging the event with Switzerland. And it isn't even in the top 100 of the FIFA world rankings.

Michael Kriess, the son of a former Austrian international, jokingly started an online petition urging Austria to withdraw its team from the tournament because watching the national team "means you fall into a dismal state of depression."

More than 10,000 fans signed the petition, and among the unofficial Euro 2008 souvenirs are T-shirts bearing the slogan, "Hosted by Losers."

Coach Josef Hickersberger took the Austrians to the 1990 World Cup, where their only win was over the USA (2-1), in his first stint but was fired after a 1-0 loss to the Faeroe Islands in Euro 1992 qualifying play.

Hickersberger puts the horrid pre-Euro 2008 results - which included losses of 3-0 to Group B opponent Germany and 3-1 to co-host Switzerland - down to rebuilding with youth.

STAR. Captain and playmaker Andreas Ivanschitz, 24, plays his club ball with Greece's Panathinaikos. The lefty has been called the Austrian Beckham because of his popularity in the media and with young fans. In 2005, he helped Rapid Vienna win the Austrian title. He debuted with the national team at age 19 and became the youngest player ever to captain it when he wore the skipper's armband before his 20th birthday.

STRENGTHS. Above all, there's the home-field advantage. Goalkeeping should be solid. Alex Manniger has been in good form for Italian club Siena, which he joined after four years as an Arsenal reserve.

Versatile Middlesbrough defender Emanuel Pogatetz was welcomed back after a 17-month banishment for criticizing Hickensberger.

Otherwise, the Austrians must hope that their youngsters come of age quickly. Striker Erwin Hoffer - nicknamed "Jimmy" after the American union leader - starred for the Austrian team that reached the semifinals of the 2007 U-20 World Cup. Other players from that team who made Hickersberger's provisional roster were midfielders Veli Kavlak and Umit Korkmaz. The Turkish-born Kevlak made his Austrian First Division debut at age 16 and is a teammate of Korkmaz, the son of a Turkish immigrant, and Hoffer at Rapid Vienna, which lifted the Austrian title this season.

WEAKNESSES. Hickersberger, whose team started its training camp earlier than all others, expects to field one of the fittest squads at the tournament. He'll also be using the time to instill confidence in the shell-shocked team, which showed a glimmer of it when it took a 3-0 lead over the Netherlands in March - before falling, 4-3.

OUTLOOK. Hickersberger admitted reaching the second round wouldn't just be exceeding expectations, it would be a "world sensation." That's something that former striker Toni Polster, the nation's all-time leading scorer, wouldn't argue with: "It is the worst Austrian team ever."

AUSTRIA IN BRIEF

Euro Schedule
June 8 in Vienna
Croatia
June 12 in Vienna
Poland
June 16 Vienna
Germany

Euro History
1984: Did not qualify
1988: Did not qualify
1992: Did not qualify
1996: Did not qualify
2000: Did not qualify
2004: Did not qualify

All-Time Caps
1. Andreas Herzog (103)
2. Anton Polster (95)
3. Gerhard Hanappi (93)
4. Karl Koller (86)
5. Friedl Koncilia (84)


CROATIA
'Fiery' fans have high expectations


Croatian coach Slaven Bilic's preparations for Euro 2008 included recording a team anthem with his heavy metal band, Rawbau. The song - titled "Vatreno Ludilo" or "Fiery Madness" - is a tribute to the Croatian fans, who call themselves "Fiery."

Those fans are expecting lots from the nation that broke off from Yugoslavia in 1992 and has since been a regular at big tournaments, including the 1998 World Cup, at which Bilic was a defender on the team that finished third.

Croatia exited the next two World Cups in the first round, but it performed remarkably in Euro 2008 qualifying.

Croatia's only loss as it topped Group E came against Macedonia when its players were told mid-game they had qualified thanks to Russia's loss in Israel.

In its last game, Croatia knocked England out with a 3-2 win at Wembley. It already had beaten England, 2-0, in Zagreb.

"I will never be under more pressure than now," says Bilic, 39, who also has a law degree.

Bilic, whose only previous coaching experience was with Croatia's U-21 team, took the helm after the 2006 World Cup.

STAR. Luka Modric, who stands just under 5-foot-8, is one of Europe's most highly touted midfield talents. Besides exceptional play in qualifying, the 22-year-old helped Dinamo Zagreb win the last three Croatian titles. He's headed to Tottenham Hotspur on a $32 million transfer. "The Little Giant" is excellent with both feet, hits precise defense-splitting passes and is tenacious in one-on-one battles. "Luka is a phenomenon," says Tomaslav Ivic, Croatia's most successful coach. "He's always in the game."

STRENGTHS. Modric is one of only three players on the roster who played with a Croatian club last season. The rest of the experienced squad - half have more than 20 caps - plays in nine different leagues. The team is particularly experienced in the defense, with Borussia Dortmund veteran Robert Kovac, AC Milan's Dario Simic and Hertha Berlin's Josip Simunic. Powerful back Vedran Corluka, 22, stars at Manchester City.

WEAKNESSES. Croatia will be without naturalized Brazilian Eduardo da Silva, the Arsenal forward who scored 10 goals in 12 games for Croatia. He suffered a broken leg from the brutal tackle by Birmingham City's Martin Taylor in February.

"We are seriously hit by Eduardo's injury, but we still have enough manpower to play better than in the qualifications," Bilic said.

Borussia Dortmund striker Mladen Petric scored seven qualifying goals and 13 in the Bundesliga. Indeed, the strike force is deep if fitness issues are resolved. Ivica Olic, who scored 12 goals for Hamburg SV, is recovering from a thigh injury. Parma's Igor Budan returned to action in January after a six-month absence. Ivan Klasnic hasn't gone the full 90 in the last six months after undergoing a double-kidney transplant, but he scored seven goals for Werder Bremen.

OUTLOOK. With the Germans, whom the Croatians eliminated at the 1998 World Cup, as their only formidable first-round foe, Croatia should cruise into the second round.

"Our goal is to play at least as good as the best teams in the tournament," says Bilic.

CROATIA IN BRIEF

Euro Schedule
June 8 in Vienna
Austria
June 12 in Klagenfurt
Germany
June 16 in Klagenfurt
Poland

Euro History
1984: -
1988: -
1992: -
1996: Quarterfinals
2000: Did not qualify
2004: First round

All-Time Caps
1. Dario Simic (97)
2. Robert Jarni (81)
3. Niko Kovac (75)
4. Robert Kovac (72)
5. Davor Sukur (69)


GERMANY
Lots still to prove


The extent to which Germans celebrated their team's run at the 2006 World Cup - a popular documentary about the team was titled "A Summer Fairytale" - demonstrated just how low expectations had fallen.

Half a million people showed up at Berlin's Fan Mile to fete Die Nationalmannschaft - for a third-place finish on home soil. The enthusiasm from fans that had once demanded titles came because the team played spirited, high-scoring soccer two years after an absolutely miserable performance at the 2004 European Championship.

It exited winless - including a scoreless tie with Latvia! - at Portugal '04. In fact, Germany hasn't won a European Championship game since it lifted its third continental title in 1996.

Whether the rejuvenation sparked by Coach Juergen Klinsmann in 2006 has legs will be revealed at Euro '08, where the team is guided by Joachim Loew, formerly Klinsmann's deputy.

STAR. Germany's dismal record against world powers over the last half decade isn't surprising considering the nation's dearth of world-class players. Chelsea midfielder Michael Ballack, who earns $16 million a year, may be the only German with any shot at making anyone's World XI. And the diligent goal-dangerous central midfielder has plenty to prove. The 27-year-old still doesn't have a stellar big-tournament performance under his belt. He missed the 2002 World Cup final, which Germany lost to Brazil, because of a yellow-card suspension. At the 2006 World Cup, he went scoreless and disappointed in the semifinal loss to Italy.

STRENGTHS. The Germans outscored their Group D qualifying opponents, 35-7, while finishing second to the Czech Republic. They're stable in defense with well-worn central defenders Christoph Metzelder and Per Mertesacker and outside back Philipp Lahm, who's also an attacking threat and can play on either side. The Germans are also heavy on scoring power. Veteran Miroslav Klose has scored 10 goals in two World Cups. The 22-year-old Mario Gomez - Germany's 2007 Player of the Year - scored six goals in his first nine national team games. Lukas Podalski has struggled at Bayern Munich but notched eight goals in qualifying play. Kevin Kuranyi missed the 2006 World Cup when his form dipped before the tournament but scored five goals in 11 games and assisted on three under Loew.

WEAKNESSES. Germany's 2006 World Cup team was one of the youngest at the tournament, giving Loew two years later a seasoned squad of players in their prime. But haunting his team is the fact that its string of high-scoring wins have come against lesser opponents. As impressive as Germany's ability to pressure teams in their own half and attack in waves may be, can it keep possession and control the rhythm against more formidable foes?

OUTLOOK. Fortunately for the Germans, the Euro '08 draw has been as generous to them as was their World Cup 2006 slate. It would seem that only Croatia poses a serious challenge in group play, while second-round passage places the Germans on the side of the knockout bracket that won't include France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain or even defending champ Greece.

GERMANY IN BRIEF

Euro Schedule
June 8 in Klagenfurt
Poland
June 12 in Klagenfurt
Croatia
June 16 Vienna
Austria

Euro History
1984: First round
1988: Semifnals
1992: Runner-up
1996: Champion
2000: First round
2004: First round

All-Time Caps
1. Lothar Matthaeus (150)
2. Juergen Klinsmann (108)
3. Juergen Kohler (105)
4. Franz Beckenbauer (103)
5. Thomas Haessler (101)


POLAND
An assist from the president


Poland's Euro 2008 preparations have taken on presidential proportions. Brazilian midfielder Roger Guerreiro, who has been playing in Poland since 2005, wasn't eligible for Polish citizenship through regular channels, because foreigners are usually required to reside in Poland for five years before naturalizing.

In stepped Lech Kaczynski, who as the nation's president has the clout to cut through red tape. Guerreiro gave Kaczynski his No. 6 jersey, the president handed over a freshly printed passport, and Guerreiro told Kaczynski he'd vote for him in the next election.

The left-sided Legia Warsaw midfielder will add some creativity to a Poland team that relied much on grit and disciplined defense to do very well in Euro 2008 qualifying.

The Poles, under their first foreign coach, Dutchman Leo Beenhakker, qualified for their first European Championship finals by finishing ahead of Portugal in Group A.

"I am very happy with this," Beenhakker said of Guerreiro's naturalization. "Every coach is looking for players with different skills and Roger can bring something extra to the team. I expect a lot from him. He can help us a lot."

STAR. Ebi Smolarek, who plays up front or on the right side in midfield, led the qualifying group in scoring with nine goals, one more than Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo. Smolarek, the son of former striker Wlodzimierz Smolerak, plays in Spain with Racing Santander, which he joined last August after scoring 25 goals in two and a half seasons for Borussia Dortmund. He has been Poland's player of the year for the last three years.

STRENGTHS. In qualifying, the Poles scored 24 goals and conceded just 12 in 14 games. Besides the addition of Guerreiro, the Poles boast an experienced attacking midfielder in Jacek Krzynowek, who has played on the national team for more than a decade. He has a mighty long-range shot and serves dangerous crosses. One concern is he didn't see regular playing time with his German club, Wolfsburg, last season. Another German-based player, Borussia Dortmund's Jakub Blaszczykowski, is a strong right-sided midfielder. In goal is 28-year-old Artur Boruc, nicknamed the "Holy Goalie," whose performances at Glasgow Celtic, particularly in international play, has drawn interest from major European clubs.

WEAKNESSES. In March, the Poles fell, 3-0, at home in a friendly to the USA in which their lack of inventiveness and inability to keep possession was glaring. Poland finished third at the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, but has struggled since. Their disappointing performances at the last two World Cups - first-round exits - will be in the back of their minds at Euro 2008.

OUTLOOK. The 65-year-old Beenhakker, who has coached more than 22 teams around the world, including Trinidad & Tobago at the last World Cup and the Dutch at Italia '90, believes Poland has put its previous big-tournament failures behind it.

"After two years, there is a total difference," he said. "You can imagine the whole atmosphere was very negative, players had lost confidence. Now it's another world. We have a mentally strong team, people believe in it."

POLAND IN BRIEF

Euro Schedule
June 8 in Klagenfurt
Germany
June 12 in Vienna
Austria
June 16 in Klagenfurt
Croatia

Euro History
1984: Did not qualify
1988: Did not qualify
1992: Did not qualify
1996: Did not qualify
2000: Did not qualify
2004: Did not qualify

All-Time Caps
1. Grzegorz Lato (100)
2. Kazimierz Deyna (97)
3. Jacek Bak (92)
4. Wladislaw Zmuda (91)
5. Antoni Szymanowski (82)

(This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)



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