Croatia looks to dent German title hopes

Croatia needs to put together a much more convincing performance against Euro 2008 co-favourites Germany on Thursday if they are to reflect the confidence their coach Slaven Bilic has that they can win the title.

Croatia looks to dent German title hopes
Photo: DPA

Croatia won their first match but the manner of their 1-0 win over co-hosts Austria was laboured – with several of their players looking jaded by the start of the second-half – and a similar performance against the Germans could result in a real hammering. The Germans looked alert and sharp in their 2-0 victory over Poland, with Polish-born Lukas Podolski grabbing a brace and showing once again that he is the man for the big stage.

Bilic, though, is convinced that his youngish side will benefit the team and that Germany may be too complacent against the lowly rated Austrians.

“Against Germany, it is imperative we raise our level in every department,” he said. “A team can get out of trouble with one player out of form. But not if there are five or six at the same time,” added Bilic, who highlighted shortcomings in defence and in the attacking midfielders, who were accused of inadequately supporting the strikes.

Bilic, who was in the last Croatian team to win a Euro finals match when they beat defending champions Denmark 3-0 in 1996, said that the sport was such an odd game they could still beat the Germans not playing at their best. “Football being what it is, we could beat Germany by playing worse than we did against Austria. But we can’t rely on that happening,” said Bilic, who wrote and played the signature tune for the Croats Euro adventure with his band.

The key will be ‘little genius’ Luka Modric, the recent Spurs signing shone for the first 25 minutes against Austria before fading into anonymity for the rest of the match. Bilic expects nothing less of his star man than for him to show that he will “be the best player of the tournament.”

“That’s not to put a burden on his shoulders but, because it’s what I think,” said 39-year-old Bilic.

Midfield partner Nico Kranjcar describes his teammate simply as “the new superstar of Croatian football.”

Germany’s already proven superstar Michael Ballack is certainly not taking anything for granted going into the Croat match especially after they beat England twice in their qualifying campaign.

“We are at 80-85 percent of our full potential, but we have to orientate ourselves towards Thursday’s opponents,” said Ballack. “We will have a much different task against Croatia, they also want to be European champions and they beat England twice, which is no easy feat.”

Meanwhile, Croatia’s England-slayer Mladen Petric wants to draw inspiration from last November’s Wembley winner as his side prepare to face the Germans. The 27-year-old striker, who scored the winner in the 3-2 victory over England, failed to score in Sunday’s 1-0 win over Austria but also wants to inflict an upset defeat on Germany.

“That was one of the most important games for us, because we proved to ourselves that a small country like Croatia can beat a big team like England, with all their good players,” he said.


Veteran keeper Lehmann exits German national squad

Germany's veteran goalkeeper Jens Lehmann is handing in his international gloves after 10 years' service, the German Football Association (DFB) said on Friday.

The 38-year-old Lehmann was the oldest player at Euro 2008 in Switzerland and Austria when Germany lost to Spain in the June 29 final. The keeper, who quit Arsenal at the end of last season to join Stuttgart, decided to step down after a discussion with Germany’s national coach Joachim Löw and goalkeeping coach Andreas Kopke.

Lehmann explained he wanted to give a chance for another keeper to prove himself in time for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. “I was not able to guarantee to the national coach that I would still be playing football at the end of the coming season during which I am under contract to Stuttgart,” he said in the statement. “Under these conditions I proposed to him and to Andreas Kopke that they should no longer include me in the national squad. It has been a good period for me in the German team.”

The Euro 2008 final on June 29 in Vienna will therefore have been Lehmann’s final appearance for his country. He was first chosen to be in the national side on February 18 1998 against Oman then shared duties in goal over the next eight years with arch-rival Oliver Kahn until the latter retired in 2006.

The DFB made no mention of who would replace Lehmann. Foremost among contenders are Bayern Leverkusen’s Rene Adler, (23) and Hanover’s Robert Enke (30).

Coach Löw paid tribute to Lehmann saying: “He brought a great deal to German football. Above all it was his leadership quality which impressed me. I don’t know many players able to bring such experience into a team.”

For German fans, Lehmann’s achievement in winning the 2006 World Cup quarterfinal against Argentina in Berlin with two dramatic penalty stops will be the most memorable moment of his long career.

The 1.90 metre (6ft 2ft) tall keeper started his career at Schalke 04 in 1988, he had a year at AC Milan in 1998/99, then returned to Germany to play for Borussia Dortmund. Arsene Wenger brought him to Arsenal in 2003 and he spent four seasons at the London club.