Germany are teetering on the brink of joining Europe’s other traditional powerhouses on their sofas at home as they prepare for their final Group B match in Vienna.
With England having failed to qualify and both France and Italy licking their wounds after suffering Dutch pastings that could see them eliminated at the first stage, Germany could find themsleves holding the torch for Europe’s giants. But even they face elimination if they lose against their neighbours and co-hosts Austria.
With the likes of Croatia and maybe even Turkey and Romania pushing for quarterfinal slots, the Euro 2008 last eight could have an unfamiliar look next weekend. And Germany will need to provide a vastly improved performance from their 2-1 defeat to Croatia if they are to beat the pumped-up Austrians.
Austria are already gunning for revenge after losing 3-0 at home to Germany in a pre-tournament warm-up. And they are trying to draw inspiration from one of their greatest results back in 1978 in Cordoba, Argentina, when they beat the then defending world champions West Germany 3-2 at the World Cup.
Although Germany began the tournament as one of the favourites, the way they were outplayed by a buzzing Croatia has got coach Joachim Löw worried.
“We know how Group B stands, the Austrians will run for their lives, they have a one-off chance to immortalise themselves and put themselves in the quarterfinals,” he said. “But make no mistake, and I promise you this, my team will be totally different on the pitch in Vienna.”
He also said German fans will see a difference in attitude and changes to the starting line-up. “You will see a more aggressive, running game from us, because all the things we did well in the Poland game were conspicuous by their absence against Croatia,” added Löw, who has been boosted by the news that fullback Philipp Lahm and Lukas Podolski the scorer of their three goals will be fit for the clash.
Germany had begun the tournament well in beating Poland 2-0 and they looked ominously like their old selves, having waited 12 years for a victory in this competition since lifting the cup in England in 1996.
However, the cracks were apparent on Thursday as the defensive frailties that saw them ripped apart 3-0 at home to the Czech Republic in qualifying were again ruthlessly exposed by the Croats this time.
Austria don’t have the guile of Croatia in attack but perhaps more of a concern for Germany was their inability to break down Croatia’s backline as Austria will be equally organised and probably even more committed. That is certainly what German captain Michael Ballack believes, especially given the passionate support they will receive.
“It will not be easy,” said the Chelsea star, who has been largely kept quiet by Poland and Croatia. “With a packed stadium which will be fully behind its team, but we knew this before the tournament began.”
He admitted it would of course have been better to have qualified for the quarterfinals after the Croatian match, but said the German squad can live with the situation and the pressure which comes with it.
“We have shown in the past that we can cope with pressure,” he said.
Ballack may believe it but Austrian striker Martin Harnik doesn’t, though, he couched it in less than flattering terms of how he thought the Germans were feeling. “The Germans are under pressure, they are going to have brown shorts,” he was quoted as saying by the Kurier newspaper.
But there is a note of caution in the Austrian camp despite outside sources trying to evoke the spirit of ’78, a full 30 years later. “Matches against Germany are always special for me,” said Austria coach Josef Hickersberger, a member of the Austrian World Cup squad in 1978 as a player. “But what happened 30 years ago doesn’t count any more. The victory in Cordoba is part of the past.”
Back in 1978 West Germany lost their final pool match to Austria and failed to progress when even a draw would have seen them through and on Monday they find themselves in the same situation.