Monday, June 16, 2008

Ballack bullet ends Austrian dream

EURO 2008: Austria 0-1 Germany, Ernst-Happel Stadion, Vienna
Ballack 49'EURO 2008.

Germany advanced to a tasty quarter-final clash with Portugal after ending Austrian hopes 1-0 in Vienna tonight.
A rocket of a set piece from Michael Ballack was the only goal of the 90 minutes, but the Chelsea man's strike was enough to see off the challenge of the co-hosts on their home patch.

For all the national euphoria stirred up on this side of the Alps over the past few days, Austria still took the field at the Prater massive underdogs, the 92nd ranked team in the world looking for a win against the fifth best and pre-tournament favourites.

Josef Hickelsberger's men were backed by thunderous support from two thirds of the arena, creating a cauldron of sounds, but the red hordes never quite materialised into a twelfth man to push the Germans onto the ropes.

Ballack's missile of a set piece, won after the impressive Phillipp Lahm had gone on a buccaneering run through the Austrian midfield four minutes after half time, was a world-class strike, the type of which Austria, for all their desire and energy, just could not match on the night.

The German skipper had called for his team to play at 'full power' for the 90, but the suspicion as the second half wore on was that the three times world champions were in mild cruise control, hoping the clock would wear out the Austrians, and in expectation of a sterner test with Portugal on the way.

The Prater was a maelstrom of noise by kickoff, with every Austrian advance met by booming roars, harking back to the great nights in the old stadium's history.

Germany began with aplomb, and almost succeeded in snatching an early strike to puncture the Austrians' atmospheric advantage.

An underfit backpass by Gyorgy Garics in the third minute has Viennese hearts in mouths, but the Austrian right back redeemed himself with an extraordinary back header off the line moments later, after ponderous German forward Mario Gomes had fluffed an open goal chance.

Germany looked ominous for the first five minutes, their superior movement and physique turning the red shirted defence several times.

But having weathered the early scares, Austria moved back into contention and settled into a more assured rhythm, enough to let them hope of getting a break to hit the Germans on the counter.

By the 18th the Austrians had grown in confidence sufficiently to have a pop at their more-fancied opponents. Good work on the right by Garics and Umit Korkmaz allowed Martin Hiden to whip in a cross.
Erwin Hoffer, who had stolen a march on the German back four, wasted the priceless opportunity by failing to control the ball and the chance was lost.

Two minutes later Rene Aufhauser fancied his chances from 25 yards and drew a diving save from Jens Lehmann, matched by an even more venomous drive at the other end from Lukas Podolski moments later.

With a third of the game gone, Austria were more than the 40% in the game their manager had predicted, although Germany had shown more sharpness up front.

If the game was not absorbing enough already, the Prater's 51,000 eyes turned to events off-field in the 42nd minute, which ended bizarrely with both Joachin Low and Hickersberger being given their marching orders by Spanish referee Manuel Gonzalez.

The two shook hands and followed each other up the stairs, Low stopping to talk to German Chancellor Angela Merkel before placing himself between Bastian Schweinsteiger and Oliver Bierhoff in the stands.

Germany finished the half having enjoyed almost 60% of the ball, and having played 206 passes to Austria's 145. But with the score at 0-0 Austria went into the dressing rooms still confident of creating an upset.

The red sea was soon calmed however. Lahm had rampaged 30 yards before being upended by Andreas Ivanitsch, who became the third Austrian to enter the touchy referee's notebook.

Then the punishment became a goal when Ballack drilled an unstoppable missle into the postage stamp, beyond the reaches of the diving goalkeeper Jurgen Macho.

With Germany in the lead and Austria needing two, the game rhythm changed as Austria began to chase.
Hickersperger had made his three substitutions by the 66th minute, the last of which, Roman Kienast, immediately added a lively presence up front beside Erwin Hoffer.

Korkmaz on the left was the source of much of Austria's good work, cutting inside German right back Arne Friedrich and helping win a number of corners.

But with fifteen minutes to go, Lehmann had still not had a save to make in the second half.
For all their endeavour and admirable desire to pass the ball to feet, it looked like Austria just did not possess the quality in a number of positions to turn the screw on their opponents. They had no Ballack, no Lahm and no Podolski.

Germany defended competently, poised to push the destroy button as soon as they got a break.

They almost ended the contest in the 80th when Macho punched Torsten Fring's inswinging corner off the line, but Austria were not finished yet.

Ivanitsch passed two coasting defenders moments later but was tackled by the last man.

With six minutes to go, Austria were in the last-chance saloon, but there was still a chink of light.

Having spread their line of attack spread right across the field to guarantee space, Garics managed to pierce the German defense on the left, but Hoffer's finish flashed wide of Lehmann's upright.
Austria were still prodding methodically until they got to around 20 yards from goal, but Jurgen Samuel's tame grasscutter in the 88th summed up their lack of bite up front.
Germany should have killed the game off earlier, but had more chances in the final seconds. Miroslav Klose failed to beat a brave Macho from close range, and Torsten Frings and Oliver Neuville missed sitters, before the referee finally threw in the towel and blew for time.

An atmosphere of relief rather than triumphalism came from the German end, while the red majority of the Prater applauded their heroes' gallant efforts.

The better team had clearly won, but Austria had not died without trying. The final stats showed Austria had enjoyed 56% of the ball after the break, but had only registered three shots on target to Germany's six.

Austria can exit EURO 2008 with some pride intact at having avoided the three thrashings some had feared and can now look forward to the start of World Cup qualifiers in the autumn.

For Germany though, a tough quarter final with Portugal in Basel on Thursday looms.
AUS -Jurgen Macho, Martin Stranzl, Emanuel Pogatetz, Christian Fuchs, Rene Aufhauser (Jurgen Samuel 63'), Andreas Ivanitsch, Umit Korkmaz, Gyorgy Garics, Martin Hiden (Christoph Leitgeb 55'), Martin Harnik (Roman Kienast 67'), Erwin Hoffer
GER - Jens Lehmann, Arne Friedrich, Clemens Fritz (Tim Borowski 90'), Torsten Frings, Mario Gomez (Thomas Hitzlsperger 60'), Miroslav Klose, Michael Ballack, Phillipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker, Lukas Podolski (Oliver Neuville 83'), Christoph Metzelder.
Att: 51, 428

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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