Let The Games Begin – Again

The European teams get together to fight it out again. Just months after the World Cup in Germany, the qualifications for the Euro Championship 2008 kick off, filling the calendar up with enough matches to satisfy soccer fans.

Five Goals in Two Matches: Germany‘s Lukas Podolski storms the top of the scorer list | Photo: soccerati.net

Just a little less than three months after the World Cup mania has died down, the Europeans are at it again. On Sept. 6 the latest games of the Euro 2008, hosted by Austria and Switzerland, got under way.

Perhaps the most interesting match, a reprise of the July 10th Berlin final, took place in Paris, with France defeating demoralized world champions Italy 3:1.

The unlucky Italians fell behind early in the game, with Olympique Lyon striker Sidney Govou sending the ball past the Italian keeper Buffon just two minutes into the game. That the Italian defense was not meant to have its day was made clear in the 18th minute.

Blocking a shot by Malouda, Buffon could do little more than watch the ball go into the net after a tight angle shot by Thierry Henry. Defender and team captain Fabio Cannavaro took some credit for the goal, deflecting the ball into his own net. A faint hope still remained for the world champions though as Gilardino headed in a free-kick by Andrea Pirlo two minutes later.

Italy continued to press forward and the French were saved halfway through the first forty-five minutes by goalie Coupet, denying the Italians a life saving equalizer that could have tipped the scales in favor of the guests. The effort indicated that the Azzuri had not had their last word in the match, but a majestic Sidney Govou claimed victory for the French in the 55th minute with his second goal of the match.

The last win by the Italians now dates back to that decisive day in Germany. Since the Cup, Italy played just two matches, with the debut of new coach Donadoni being ruined by Croatia who beat an Italian reserve team 2:0 in a friendly in Livorno.

The upsets continued in their first official match of the qualifying, taking on Lithuania at home and succeeding to no more than a 1:1 draw, leaving the World Cup winners on second to last place of Group B with just one point.

Germany, who shut the mouthes of many critics who  questioned the quality of the team by taking the third place in the World Cup, saw to a demonstration of power with an away 13:0 annihilation of an amateur San Marino side. The home team  managed to hold a clean net for just twelve minutes, as Lukas Podolski headed in a cross from Bernd Schneider.

What followed was a target practice by the World Cup hosts,  leaving the soccer no-names behind six goals at the end of the first half, with Schweinsteiger and Michael Ballack claiming one, and both Miroslav Klose and Podolski putting two past the helpless home keeper.

Podolski would go on to drive in two more in the second half to close off his scoring on four goals at the end of the night.

Hitzlsperger, Friedrich, Schneider and again Schweinsteiger assisted in the whitewash that secured a new high score in European championship qualifying matches, unmatched since 1984 and Spain’s 12:1 record over Malta. With a previous 1:0 win over Ireland, Germany has cemented itself on first place of Group D, with a 14:0 goal difference.

World Cup disappointments England and the Netherlands both opened their run for the Euro victoriously.

England struggled past a highly motivated Macedonian side in Skopje, with Peter Crouch securing his eleventh goal for England in the 46th minute and bringing home the 1:0 victory, sealing England’s hundred percent run with three wins in the last three matches.

Robin Van Persie secured Holland a routine 3:0 win over Belarus, the Arsenal forward scored two and assisted for Dirk Kuijt’s goal in the second minute of injury time.

The opening matches of the qualifications were not exclusively favorable for the big teams. Spain fell to a stunning 2:3 defeat in Belfast to Northern Ireland after taking the lead twice in the match. However, the Irish rallied and came back twice to eventually take the lead in the 80th minute thanks to unstoppable Leeds United forward David Healy, scoring all three goals for Northern Ireland.

The match looked likely to be another routine win for the Spanish, with Northern Ireland goalie Roy Carroll exiting the match after just eleven minutes due to an injury, sending in Maik Taylor to face the motivated Spanish strikers. Three minutes later Taylor already had to pick the ball out of the net, with Xavi scoring the milestone 1000th goal for the Furia. Northern Ireland were not about to lie down, and an inspired David Healy went on to score the first of his three goals of the evening with a close range shot in the twentieth minute.

The rest of the first half saw Spain creeping ever closer to a new lead, with Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso and nineteen year old Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas making unsuccessful attempts on goal. The effort of the Spaniards was finally rewarded seven minutes after the start of half two. David Villa, having a shot saved just a minute before, catches a pass from Fabregas and succeeds in his second attempt to push the ball past Taylor into the bottom right corner.

Just when Northern Ireland seemed on course for another disappointment after their loss to Iceland four days before, David Healy surfaced to bring the Northern Irish back level in the sixty-fourth minute with a right foot shot that buries itself into the bottom corner of Casillas’s net.

Spain fought to take another lead, yet it would again be Healy, bringing a long cross from Taylor under his control and coolly lobbing the ball over Casillas to secure both his hattrick and an important victory for Northern Ireland.

Likewise, fading Portugal was not able to impress in Helsinki, holding on to a 1:1 draw against Finland. The runners up of the Euro 2004, reaching immortality during the World Cup when they participated in the 16 yellow- and four red-card quarterfinal monstrosity against Holland, saw the Finnish take the lead in the 22nd minute. The Portuguese equalized twenty minutes later, with Nuno Gomes firing in a cross from Deco. After half time, Portugal continued to exert pressure on the hosts, but a second yellow card for Ricardo Costa just eight minutes into the second half tipped the scales in favor of the Finnish, forcing the World Cup semi-finalists into the defensive until full time.

World Cup participant Croatia took on Russia in Moscow, both teams making their debut in Group E with new coaches. The match had symbolic value for Russia’s new coach, Guus Hiddink, who took charge of the Russian side after separating with the Australians after their World Cup defeat in the second round to later champions Italy.

The match was Hiddink’s third run in with the Croats, the last being in June while coaching the Australian side that saw Croatia exiting the competition and sending the “Aussies” through after settling for a 2:2 draw and three red cards.

The teams both missed key players. The Russian side had to do without injured team captain Aleksei Smertin and the suspended Vladimir Bystrov and Yuri Zhirkov.

Croatian coach Bilic had little reason to rejoice over these facts though as his team was short of the suspended and injured defenders Josip Simunic, Dario Simic and Igor Tudor. His effort to put the team together was additionally complicated by the forced suspensions of  Darijo Srna, Bosko Balaban and CSKA Moscow striker Ivica Olic, all of whom were suspended for breaking a curfew. The two teams played a bland first half on the rain-soaked pitch with little chances of scoring goals, disappointing the expectations of the audience.

The second forty-five minutes brought the fans more excitement, as Croatia’s Milan Rapaic, revived by coach Slaven Bilic after two long years of exile from the squad, hit the angle of post and crossbar in the fiftieth minute.

Russia became more dangerous as Hiddink chose to bring Pavel Pogrebnyak into the game shortly afterwards, but apart from two shots wide and a failed attempt after a strong effort by Igor Shemshev rounded off the chances for the home team. A late strike off target by Werder Bremen forward Ivan Klasnic ended the game, both teams carrying one point off of the pitch.

Euro 2008 hosts Austria and Switzerland, both qualified for the final tournament,  were also in action in a four-team tournament played out in Geneva and Basel. The Austrian team, troubled by lack of decent results, has not qualified for the last two World Cup’s, making their last appearance in France ’98.

The crisis is more obvious now then ever, with Austria managing to tie only one game, 2:2 against Costa Rica, out of the last five; defeats coming from second to third class European teams such as Croatia (1:4) and Hungary (1:2),  and traditionally inferior Canada (0:2) and Venezuela (0:1).

Austria is panicking. The expected turn to better results by replacing former Austrian coach and football legend Hans Krankl and with then-Rapid coach Joseph Hickersberger did not happen.

After five games without victory, especially against teams such as Canada, who until May 17th 2006 didn’t even have a professional soccer league, the fans don’t want to hear excuses how Austria has a new, young team of talented players whose time is yet to come.

“With Krankl one at least had the feeling that the players were motivated to play, now [the team is] horrifying to look at, like against Venezuela; that was a catastrophe” comments a despairing fan, pointing out what many are thinking: “How low can we possibly go with Hickersberger?”

The fans are not the only ones who are losing their patience. After defensive midfielder Paul Scharner, who resigned from the national team because of the “unprofessional structures in the Austrian Football Association”, the Austrians have also lost Emanuel Pogatetz, who got kicked out of the team after the game against Venezuela for publicly criticizing Hickersberger,

“In the national team matches its every man for himself, before the game we get no tactical specifications” said a frustrated Pogatetz in disbelief, “If before a match you get together to discuss the game plan, the coach in detail introduces the best players of the opposite team and you [subsequently] find out that these players aren’t even playing, you really ask yourself what’s going on.”

In the meantime, the president of the Austrian Football Association Friedrich Stickler took the only step possible and eliminated Pogatetz from further participation in the Team,

“The attitude that Mr. Pogatetz is displaying is not acceptable and indicates a lack of respect. I am stunned.” Commented Stickler,  “Pogatetz had ten days to discuss his complaints internally with the coach, but didn’t do so. Naturally, after this verbal derailment the door to the national team is closed for him.”

It is questionable if the Austrian team can afford axing the two players, both of whom play in the English Premier League.

Out of the team, the only highlights seem to be Roland Linz of Boavista Porto and Martin Stranzl of Spartak Moscow, who have leading positions in international clubs and, in the case of Stranzl, also participate in this years Champion’s League.

Team captain Ivanschitz, praised as one of Austria’s biggest soccer talents, fell from grace in the past season, failing to find a place in the first eleven of Red Bull Salzburg and now is trying his luck in Panathinaikos Athens, a club that as of the past few years dances, very uncertainly, on the edge anonymity in European club soccer. For a team captain this is not good publicity.

Furhermore, with Pogatetz and Scharner gone, the Austrian team has inflicted a gaping hole onto its already weak defense that cannot be filled since there are no players that reach the quality of the eliminated duo. The Austrian national team is striding into an uncertain future, and at this time the only consolidation that can be found for the team are that they are already qualified for the Euro as hosts. One concern less.

However, unless the team and especially the association get their act together quickly, little more than a repeated humiliation and seething rage from the fans can be expected in the summer of 2008. Up till now, the darkest hour of Austrian soccer has been the 0:1 defeat to the Faroe Islands in September 1990, ending the coaching era of Hickersberger the first time he was in charge of the team. Prior to the match against Liechtenstein, the fans fear a similar scenario  like the one sixteen years ago.

But as the old saying goes, it’s better to have a horrible ending than to have horrors without end. Unfortunately, Austria momentarily seems to be taking the latter course.

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