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Day 2: Goals, Goals, My Kingdom For Some Goals

Four games so far, six total goals and not one where both teams in a match scored. It might be time to ease up on the ol’ offside rule, or at least allow the strikers to use steroids.

Group B:

Croatia 1, Austria 0

In a spirited but ultimately poorly played first half Croatia got off to a quick lead thanks to referee Peter Vink awarding them a penalty kick in the third minute when René Aufhauser of Austria fouled forward Ivica Olić on the left side of the box. He was played in there by midfielder Luka Modrić who took the spot kick and casually booted it right down the middle and it easily beat Jürgen Macho who dove to his right. Vink was in poor position to make the call but was fortunate enough to make the correct decision. His real mistake was earlier, when the play first started, when he let Olić throw in the ball to Modrić from the left sideline some ten yards further downfield than when the ball had gone out of bounds.

After the early goal, both sides missed a few opportunities. The Croatian side showed their technical superiority but possessed less and less o the ball as the half went on. Their best chance came when Darijo Srna set up Mladen Petrić alone on the left side and he had all the time in the world to settle the ball down, but he tried to volley it and missed badly. The Austrians meanwhile looked poor on numerous chances in the air. Sebastian Prödl missed one wide in the 27th minute off a free kick and Joachim Standfest was also well wide left in the 41st minute. Their captain Andreas Ivanschitz saw more of the ball certainly than his playmaking counterpart Modrić, but nothing came of it.

The game could’ve taken a radically different shape if Vink booked Austrian defender Emanuel Pogatetz a second time in the 28th minute after another theatrical Olić dive, which would’ve reduced the home underdogs to ten men, but he thought better of it.

In the second half it was more of the same. Croatia’s central midfielders Modrić and captain Niko Kovač saw more of the ball for the first 20 minutes or so, but once the subs started coming on, it was all Austria with the chances. Reserve Ivica Vastic, a fan favorite and the oldest player in the tournament had the best opportunities for Austria, stinging Croatian Stipe Pletikosa’s fingers with a sharp curling free kick and soon after a header in the 78th minute. Another sub, Ümit Korkmaz, had a decent bender in the 85th that Pletikosa had to dive for. The last sub, Roman Kienast, missed a header wide right in stoppage time.

While the announcers were making the obvious comparisons between this match and the one yesterday involving the other co-host, Switzerland, I don’t think it was very fitting at all and it really flattered Austria while simultaneously insulting the Swiss quite a bit. Switzerland actually hot a few dangerous shots on goal and were denied by a world class goalie in Peter Cech. They hit a post and had the edge in possession time. Never, for one instant, did they look like the worst team in their match. The goal they allowed came in the 71st minute against the run of play and they had only 20+ minutes to recover from it and had to do so without their best attacker. Austria on the other hand were in the position of having to chase the game from very early on, before any momentum had been established, and got the chance to be the aggressors with Croatia getting to play behind the ball and play conservatively.

Still, there’s no denying that Croatia should’ve been much, much better. I was surprised how little they attacked, how few chances they took and that they didn’t challenge Austria’s defenders more. They really didn’t have to, but I feel they were overly confident that Austria couldn’t score on them, no matter how many chances they were given. Basically, Croatia let up, and they were fortunate to escape with three points. They’ll have to be much, much better against Germany on Thursday in a match that should decide the group.

Austria on the other hand can’t play much better than they showed today, but again, I think the major reason they got the chance to appear better was because they were trailing so early. Poland, needing both the win and some goals for tiebreaker purposes won’t be nearly as accommodating and should be expected to give a more thorough effort.

Three Stars:

3. Andreas Ivanschitz – Austria’s best player was just that and he created both for himself and others.

2. Stipe Pletikosa – Was busier and busier as the game went on but made all the big saves and was very confident and assured in handling on all the crosses in his vicinity. Never looked rattled or out of control.

1. Ivica Olić – He had a few scant chances but was responsible for the only goal and was the only Croat who looked to be interested and up for the challenge of taking on Austrian defenders and putting them on their heels. He needed more forward support from his forward partner Petrić and more supply from his midfielders.

Germany 2, Poland 0

Germany manager Joachim Löw started the game off surprisingly in a couple of aspects. For one, he started the diminutive Philipp Lahm, perhaps the national elf of Die Nationalelf, at right fullback when he was so strong on the left side in the past World Cup. Even more unexpectedly, he chained his usual left midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger to the bench in favor of Lukas Podolski, usually a forward. The move practically caused always entertaining analyst Tommy Smyth to go into conniptions in the studio. Mario Gómez was called on to start up front with Miroslav Klose.

Both moves, perhaps a signal that Poland’s defense is weaker on the left side than the right, changed Germany’s approach totally. Having attacked almost exclusively from the left flank in ’06, they charged in from the right this time out. Lahm and especially right midfielder Clemens Fritz continually broke the Polish defense to deliver crosses. Podolski, who looks like how my gay cousin Derin would look if he lost a hundred pounds, didn’t really act like much of a left winger and was often up top with Klose with Gomez dropping back. It was Klose who had to be versatile and alert to make the shifting work, moving from left forward when Gómez was with him to right forward when Podolski snuck up top. The constant switching back and forth between the trio seemed to really confuse the Polish centerbacks, who don’t need much help from strangers to reach such a state.

Just minutes in the forward pair almost combined on a goal on a two-on-none break, but Klose’s pass was poor and Gómez couldn’t stretch for it. They didn’t deserve it anyway because Gómez appeared to be off side the whole time. Podolski had his first chance in the 10th minute but couldn’t do much with his volley attempt from right midfielder Clemens Fritz’s cross.

Then suddenly, in the 20th minute, they broke through. Fritz found Gómez alone in the right channel and he played in Klose, expertly beating Poland’s off-side trap. At least I think it was an off-side trap. It could’ve just been atrocious defense. In any event, Klose had the ball at his feet on another two-on-oh with the Polish keeper Artur Boruc, only this time he was coming in from his more natural right side. He patiently waited for Boruc to come up and close off the angle before smoothly sliding it over to Podolski who tapped it in to the vacated net for another clean hockey goal, very similar to Portugal’s second against the Turks in stoppage time yesterday. The Poles protested, claiming Klose wasn’t on side, but this one was good and just punishment for their backline playing far too high and asking for trouble. The football gods didn’t let Germany score the first one when the side judge blew it, but the second attempt was worthy.

Undaunted, Poland tried to strike back quickly through Wojciech Łobodziński, who drilled a good shot from right in the 28th minute handled by German goalie Jens Lehmann. In the 35th he put an excellent move on Germany’s left back Marcell Jansen, hoping over him with the ball, but his slick pass to wide open captain Maciej Żurawski didn’t result in a goal as “Magic” botched it, shooting wide left. Żurawski didn’t look right the whole half and was substituted for when the teams switched sides.

A minute after Łobodziński’s crowd-pleasing attempt, Fritz pulled off nearly the same move, getting by his man on the right and he too saw the effort wasted by a poor shot from Gómez that was hit so weakly that Klose almost reacted quickly enough to flick it in on his back heel.

To begin the second half Poland manager Leo Beenhakker subbed Żurawski for Roger Guerreiro and immediately the naturalized Brazilian changed the pace of things, cross a ball near the goalmouth right away and later testing Lehmann with a weak shot in the 53rd. Poland’s real chance was ruined by a linesman, when their best player Ebi Smolarek was ruled offside on a clean through ball in the 63rd minute.

Again, as with the first game, all the momentum seemed to be with the side chasing the game, so Löw had to do something, and he responded by finally inserting Schweinsteiger into the lineup for the fading Fritz, a straight substitution with him playing on the right side instead of his preferred left. Witnessing him and Lahm scurrying and overlapping down the right flank, it was like watching the past World Cup through a mirror. Schweinsteiger immediately made his presence felt, trying Boruc with a long shot in the 66th. Three minutes later he combined with Lahm, whose great pass to streaking captain Michael Ballack was an absolute rocket, off the keeper’s fingertips and over the bar.

In the 72nd minute came the all too vital second goal for Germany to put the game away. Schweinsteiger had the ball about at right the edge of the box, but instead of trying his luck again he passed it to Klose who uncharacteristically flubbed his one touch attempt when he too, like Croatia’s Petrić hours earlier, had time to settle the ball. No matter though, as the ball’s short, unexpected parabola took it directly to the left boot of Pudolski who walloped it into the back of the net on the volley. It was an amazing crack of a shot that gave Boruc little chance.

From there both sides attempted a few more laser beams; Schweinsteiger, Pudolski and reserve Thomas Hitzlsperger for the victors, Smolarek, Guerreiro, and Jacek Krzynówek for the losers. Poland finished the contest with an ironic edge in shots, both on goal and not, but it really didn’t tell the story of the game and they were well outclassed throughout. I seriously doubt having both goals scored against them come from a countryman was any consolation.

Poland gets co-host Austria on Thursday and anything less than three points will be considered a massive disappointment. Beenhakker needs to figure out in practice if Żurawski can give them anything and if not he’s got to start Guerreiro and play Smolarek, their best scorer anyway, up top. With the need for goals so dire, it might be time to move to a 4-4-2.

Germany, on the other hand, has no pressing concerns, having won their opening game playing in, at most, third gear. The Croatians bring considerably more pace and technical ability, particularly in their midfield, so Löw might want to save Gómez for use as a reserve and play both Schweinsteiger and Fritz at the same time so he has the versatility to attack from both sides. I mean, who’s kidding who, Podolski is a forward.

Three Stars:

3. Bastian Schweinsteiger – He raised enough havoc in his half hour of work to show his manager he should’ve been starting all along.

2. Philipp Lahm – Not only was he just as much of a holy terror from the right, running, crossing, challenging defenders one-on-one, but Poland pretty much avoided trying to attack his quadrant of the pitch.

1. Lukas Podoski – Scored both goals, one easy, one not, and he could’ve had a couple more. And to think, ol’ Tommy Smyth wanted him on the bench.

Tomorrow, group C makes their debut, and when Italy is the most dynamic offense of the bunch, you know it’s gonna be a long day.