Without a victory in a major finals in 18 years, co-hosts Austria were desperate to make their mark early in UEFA EURO 2008™ Group B, yet for all their noise and endeavor, Luka Modrić's class told as Croatia prevailed in Vienna.
The message on the front of the Österreich newspaper's EURO magazine said it all: Heute müsst ihr siegen (Today we must win). The paper tried every means possible to find reason for hope. The slightly biased Hans Krankl made a favourable tactical analysis, Ivica Vastic's Croatian wife said she would be rooting for the co-hosts and even player horoscopes apparently pointed to an Austrian win. But while the stars may have been in their favour, the presence of an emerging one – Modrić – in Croatia's lineup was not.
As the national anthems were sung, a large banner was unfurled in the midst of the Croatia fans with just one telling word on it: Eduardo. The Arsenal FC man struck ten times in qualifying, but was ruled out of the finals due to the horrific double compound fracture to his leg he suffered in February. The question was always how much Slaven Bilić's team would miss him, and while that will be borne out over the course of this month, having a player of Modrić's calibre should help soften the blow. Signed by Tottenham Hotspur FC before UEFA EURO 2008™ in a deal worth €21m, he was soon demonstrating why he has been dubbed Croatia's answer to Johan Cruyff.
With just three minutes gone, the diminutive No14 (ring any bells?) turned Martin Stranzl inside out on the left flank and fed the ball to Ivica Olić, who was brought down in the box by René Aufhauser. Modrić stepped up and rifled in. No other side has ever fallen behind to a penalty so early at a UEFA European Championship; not the best lift for an Austrian team seeking their first major finals win since beating the United States at the 1990 FIFA World Cup. Yet they responded well, and after weathering a storm the co-hosts began to boss possession. So dangerous early on, Modrić was now assigned to a role shielding Croatia's back line, trying to wrest back the initiative – he did not seem to play a misplaced pass.
Home coach Josef Hickersberger needed to do something, and introduced Vastic on the hour to a tumultuous welcome from all sides of the Ernst-Happel-Stadion. The script seemed to be written: a Split-born Austrian scoring against the country of his birth. He came close, twice testing Stipe Pletikosa as he and fellow replacement, Ümit Korkmaz, ensured a frenetic finish with the home crowd rising and falling with a harmony their Viennese musical forefathers would have admired. Austria just lacked that something – that something Modrić appears to be blessed with.
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