A frenetic, scrappy Group B opener in Leiria ended in a deadlocked goalless draw – and there can be no doubt that group outsiders Switzerland will have been more satisfied with a point than Croatia, who failed to make a one-man advantage count throughout the entire second half.
Determination and solidarity
What Switzerland lack in skill, they make up for with determination and solidarity. The men from the Alps certainly needed all their supplies of commitment to grab a deserved point after losing their midfield anchor man Johann Vogel for a second bookable offence just after the interval.
Croatia predictably had the edge technically. They also had their chances in the first half – Nenad Bjelica shooting straight at Swiss goalkeeper Jörg Stiel, and Niko Kovac and Ivica Mornar off-target with headers in a purposeful opening from Otto Baric's side. But Croatia's fire gradually subsided as the game wore on, and Switzerland must have been surprised to hold on with such comfort in the end.
"It was a big loss to have Vogel sent off, but we have achieved a very positive result," said a relieved but satisfied Kuhn, who now prepares his men for the tougher confrontations ahead against the group's big guns, England and European champions France. "The Swiss team has made positive steps tonight and this is what counts. We had to struggle with ten players, but my team were excellent and we are looking forward with excitement to our next match."
Kuhn has moulded a methodical, workmanlike side since he was a surprise choice to take over the Swiss helm in 2001. Those qualities served his charges well on a hot afternoon in Leiria – and his side also carved out promising openings of their own to keep the Croatians fully alert even after Vogel's dismissal.
Veteran front-runner Stéphane Chapuisat was largely shackled, but partner Alexander Frei ran his heart out up front, and almost broke the deadlock when his drive on the quarter-hour was beaten away by Croatian keeper Tomislav Butina.
Huggel goes close
At the other end, central defenders Murat Yakin and Patrick Müller overcame a nervy opening to finally subdue the potential attacking threat of Dado Pršo and Tomislav Šokota, and Benjamin Huggel was almost rewarded for his ceaseless midfield commitment after the break when Butina fumbled his long-range drive away for a corner.
While Kuhn could derive much pleasure from his side's effort, coach Otto Baric was somewhat less ecstatic at Croatia's ultimately fruitless display. "I am not satisfied with the performance, but we have played against an excellent team, and you will see that Switzerland will cause big problems to both England and France," he reflected.
"I changed three players to strengthen the midfield and attacking lines, but it didn't help," lamented Baric. "I expected the players who came in to perform better. It was a difficult game and we should have created more chances, but we did not succeed. Thank God we did not concede a goal."
Headache for Baric
On this showing, Baric has the greater headache. After all, Kuhn and his Swiss outfit have little to lose here in Portugal. Croatia are expecting a little more as they seek a return to the mid-1990s glory days. But they ultimately lacked the purpose and determination needed to breach the steely Swiss dam in front of them, and will need to raise their game considerably to upset the English and French in their remaining outings.
Meanwhile, the Swiss supporters were exultant at the end. Kuhn and his battling players will undoubtedly need luck on their side if they are to survive their more testing UEFA EURO 2004™ assignments – but a gritty 90 minutes in Leiria proved that their surprise journey to Portugal has been no fluke.
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