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They are already proving excellent co-hosts, but can the Austrians also impress where it matters most? Josef Hickersberger's side begin their UEFA EURO 2008™ bid on Sunday knowing Group B rivals Croatia would love nothing more than to spoil the party at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion in Vienna.
Ranked 92nd in the world by FIFA, Austria are under no illusion about their underdog status, but Hickersberger promised his players would rise to meet the challenge. "I'm optimistic we're going to play well against Croatia," the coach said. "We have no injuries, all the players are 100 per cent fit and in good health, and they all believe in the possibility of creating a surprise. Our opponents are excellent and experienced, but we've set ourselves a goal. For the first time in 18 years, we want to win a match in a major tournament."
Their last success in a major finals came against the United States at the 1990 FIFA World Cup, when Hickerberger was also sitting in the dugout, and the 60-year-old is targeting a berth in the last eight as Austria make their first-ever appearance in the continental showcase. "We want to win this match and we have to win a match if we're to fulfil our goal of reaching the quarter-finals," he explained. "We have three chances to do that, starting now, but as for our tactics, that will depend on the strengths and weaknesses of both sides."
Cagey as ever, the former Austrian international also refused yet again to name his first-choice goalkeeper. Alex Manninger and Jürgen Macho have both been tipped by various local newspapers, and Hickerberger joked that at least some of them were on the right track. "I will announce the lineup tomorrow before the match," he said. "But you can read the name of the goalkeeper in many newspapers. I hope they've got it right." What seems less debateable, on the other hand, is that Austrian-Croatian Andreas Ivanschitz will start in midfield, while Croatian-born striker Ivica Vastic will begin on the bench.
There are no doubts about Slaven Bilić's Croatia lineup, meanwhile, with the creative spark likely to come from playmaker Luka Modrić, while Ivica Olić will partner Mladen Petrić up front. They will look to provide the goals in the absence of injured striker Eduardo da Silva, but Bilić denied that their job will be to help Croatia's fans forget the Brazilian-born forward. "We're very motivated because of Eduardo," he said. "He's very popular with the other players. No one can replace him but we're confident of getting good results."
The Croats certainly go into the tournament with higher expectations after topping qualifying Group E ahead of Russia, England and Israel. They have also beaten Austria in all three meeting between the two sides, including a 4-1 triumph in Vienna two years ago. Bilić ruled out the possibility of complacency, however, stating: "We think we can go far. But right now, we're not even thinking about the second match. We're totally focused on Austria. The first match is so important in terms of confidence and our players are highly motivated and ready to go."
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