Austria went the same way as co-hosts Switzerland, opening their UEFA EURO 2008 challenge with a narrow defeat as Luka Modrić's early penalty gave Croatia victory in Vienna.
The midfielder scored the only goal of the first Group B game in the fourth minute, firing in after Ivica Olić had been brought down by René Aufhauser – the fastest penalty converted in finals history. The home side took time to find their feet after that setback, but mounted a stirring late charge with substitute Roman Kienast heading centimetres past the post seconds before the whistle.
Coach Josef Hickersberger ended the goalkeeper conundrum by selecting Jürgen Macho ahead of Alex Manninger but, with three minutes and 35 seconds on the clock, the Austria No21 was forced to pick the ball out of the net following the worst of starts. Modrić showed outstanding control to keep an attack alive and found Olić, who was blocked as he attempted to go outside Aufhauser. Modrić slotted in the spot kick with aplomb, driving down the centre of goal with Macho diving to his right.
With an entire nation having worked themselves into a fever of anticipation, it was a blow that could have shattered Austrian morale. For Slaven Bilić's men, meanwhile, the immediate breakthrough settled nerves and there was an assurance about their football. The home team looked vulnerable every time Croatia forced a set piece, Darijo Srna's delivery proving impeccable. It left Martin Stranzl and company overworked and little was happening at the other end to lift local spirits, although Sebastian Prödl shot wide from distance with Stipe Pletikosa watching it all the way.
The Austria defender then rose highest to meet a corner but his effort flew beyond the far upright. After Mladen Petrić had rushed a volley, sending the ball off target, Austria finally began to assert themselves and proved they could get behind the Croatia back line. Martin Harnik gathered a ball played incisively inside the full-back and his cutback prompted some hurried defensive measures from Josip Šimunić before a long diagonal pass found Joachim Standfest, who could not place his header on target.
Austria kicked off the second half where they had left off with Harnik, a focal point for their progress down the right, bursting beyond his marker and it was unfortunate Aufhauser could not connect with the hard-driven centre. From a similar position moments later, Harnik put too much power into his cross and the chance went begging. Perhaps inspired, Modrić went on a right-sided excursion of his own, and Stranzl had to call on all his experience to avert the danger. Austria then brought on the championship's oldest player, the 38-year-old Ivica Vastic, in a bid to rescue the situation.
With another substitute, Ümit Korkmaz, adding a vital spark, Austria threw everything at Croatia in a rousing finale, Harnik shooting too high when well-placed and Pletikosa almost fumbling a Vastic header. The Croatia goalkeeper then had to push aside Korkmaz's fierce drive but he was a spectator in added time as Kienast met a left-wing free-kick with a header that flew just wide as Austria's last chance went begging. Croatia continue their campaign against Germany in Klagenfurt on Thursday, when Austria will hope for better fortune against Poland in this stadium.
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