Wörthersee Stadion, Klagenfurt, 12.06.2008

1-2 (0-1)
Podolski 79. / Srna 24., Olić 62.

With three points safely in the bag with their victory against Poland Jogi Löw’s team would be full of confidence against their next opponents Croatia, who had also got off to a winning start with a somewhat scratchy 1-0 victory over co-hosts Austria. The Croats had in previous competitive encounters proved to be a hard nut to crack for the Nationalmannschaft, and both matches that had been played between the two sides in major competition had not only been hard-fought but played with an ill-spiritedness that at times bordered on outright malice.

The teams would first meet in the Euro 1996 quarter-final which had seen Berti Vogts’ German side prevail 2-1, a particularly nasty match that had seen Croatia’s Igor Štimac sent off and a succession of bad fouls and off the ball incidents. The next meeting at France 1998 would be played in much the same spirit, though on this occasion it would be the Germans that would come off the worst as Christian Wörns’ fortieth-minute red card precipitated a 3-0 quarter-final exit. Even before the teams walked out onto the field at Klagenfurt’s Wörthersee Stadion, there would have been a good price on there being a sending off and at least half a dozen yellow cards.

The Nationaltrainer would choose to stick with the same starting eleven and 4-4-2 formation that had been successful against the Poles four days earlier, deciding to keep faith in striker Mario Gómez who had had a particularly ordinary time in front of goal. The Croats meanwhile would field a side that included two players who would have been more than familiar to Bundesliga-watchers, the Berlin-born brothers Niko and Robert Kovač.

On what was a bright midweek afternoon the Wörthersee Stadion was again packed to its 30,000 capacity, and Belgian referee Frank de Bleeckere would lead out the teams with Germany in their usual Schwarz und Weiß ensemble while the Croats took to the field in their blue change strip adorned with the famous red and white checkerboard pattern.

Apart from a few firm tackles the opening fifteen minutes would pass by with very little incident as both sides looked to establish themselves in midfield, with much of the early attention from the British television commentator focussing on the “what could have been” with Croatia having eliminated England in their qualifying group. Joachim Löw’s side would show some good pace on the break, only to fall short of ideas in the final third.

The thirty-thousand crowd would have to wait until the twentieth minute for the first opportunity for either side as Christoph Metzelder slid in briliantly to deny Ivica Olić, and moments later Mario Gómez would have the ball in the Croatian net having been rightly judged offside. Then out of nowhere Croatia would take the lead. After some good play down the left flank Danijel Pranjić would swing a looping ball that floated into the German box, catching left-back Marcell Jansen completely flat-footed as Dario Srna slid in at the far post.

Jansen would almost immediately make up for his mistake just moments later as he swung in a cross from which Gómez could have done better, and with the game now being sparked into life goalscorer Srna would be booked for a mistimed challenge on Lukas Podolski. The Croats would have a fantastic opportunity to double their lead on the half-hour mark after a fine ball from Schalke 04’s Rakitić was nodded on by Hamburger SV’s Olić, only for the unmarked Niko Kranjčar to blaze his shot high over the bar.

Germany would come close to levelling the scores twice in the space of a minute with thirty-three minutes gone. First skipper Michael Ballack first send in a free-kick from well over thirty yards that was just about parried by Stipe Pletikosa, and just moments later Miroslav Klose would almost get on the end of a chance with the Croatian ‘keeper flapping around aimlessly. As had been the case in their previous match against Poland, the Mannschaft would respond to the pressure being exerted by their opponents by finding their second gear.

The last five minutes before half time would see chances for both sides. With forty minutes gone full-back Metzelder would get well above his marker to meet a well-flighted left-sided corner from Torsten Frings only to send it over the crossbar, while just minutes later on the other side of the pitch Jansen would once again be found wanting as Vedran Ćorluka breezed past him to find Olić, whose smart layoff found Kranjčar whose firm left-footed effort was well parried by Lehmann.

Kranjčar could and perhaps should have put his side out of sight, but just minutes later Klose would have the ball in the back of the Croatian net. The Belgian referee would signal a foul against Gómez after the VfB Stuttgart striker went up for a fifty-fifty challenge with Pletikosa, but the replay would clearly suggest that rather than being fouled the butterfingered Croatian ‘keeper had simply dropped the ball.

Germany look to have scored the equaliser, but the goal is ruled out and Croatian ‘keeper Stipe Pletikosa gets away with a bad fumble

Josip Šimunić would get a slightly harsh booking after kicking the ball away, which would be the last action of a first-half that had started slowly built bubbled to the boil nicely.

Nationaltrainer Jogi Löw would make a significant change at half-time, removing the obvious weak link in the form of Marcell Jansen and sending on David Odonkor. The change would result in some rejigging of the back four, with Philipp Lahm now slotting into the left-back slot with Odonkor out on the right.

The Mannchaft would being the second half brightly, with both Lahm and Odonkor pressing out wide and Ballack sending a half-chance over the bar after Pletikosa had made a meal of a punched clearance. Lehmann would have to clutch twice to collect a skidding shot from Luka Modrić, but the opening fifteen-minute period would see much of the pressure being exerted by Jogi Löw’s side.

With just over an hour gone Germany would have nothing to show for their more energetic start to the second half, and there would be a sense of inevitability over where the next goal would come from – though nobody could have predicted how. Seizing on some confusion between Odonkor and Clemens Fritz, Rakitić would send the ball out to Srna on the right before collecting a return ball from Ćorluka. The Croatian winger would send his cross too far in front of Olić, but near enough to the German goal to wrong-foot Lehmann, who was unable to gather the ball as it took a nasty deflection before pinging off the inside of his left post. In what was truly an unlucky break for the Mannschaft the ball would fall straight into the path of Olić, who stole in between Fritz and Per Mertesacker to stab stab it into the empty net.

The German coach would react that this body blow by replacing the ineffective Gómez with Bastian Schweinsteiger, but the Croats – energised by their rather fortuitous second goal – would continue to press rather than sit on their two-goal lead. The men in white shirts meanwhile would have a mountain to climb, as the match went into its final twenty minutes the best the Germans could offer was a Schweinsteiger cross that skidded across the face of the goal. Meanwhile, Michael Ballack’s day would get even worse as he received a yellow card for a late challenge on Rakitić.

With German fans probably buttoning up the coats in anticipation of an early exit from the ground, they would finally get that moment of luck. Now out on the left, Lahm would swing in towards Ballack, whose header would come back off the head of Robert Kovač before falling to Podolski, who joined Spain’s David Villa as the tournament’s top goalscorer with a thundering left-footed strike from twelve yards. With his team now back up in the contest Jogi Löw would up the ante, sending on striker Kevin Kurányi for midfielder Fritz.

Lukas Podolski scores his third goal in two games to halve the deficit, but it’s a case of too little, too late

Croatian substitute Jerko Leko would test Lehmann with a shot out of nowhere, but the remaining ten minutes would see the Mannschaft make all the running with Schweinsteiger in particular providing plenty of commitment and energy. The Croats would now be prepared to sit back and counter on the break, but as the clock ticked on there would be no further chances for either side.

In both of the previous competitive encounters between the two sides there had been at least one red card, and as the final whistle approach those who may have placed a bet on the same happening again would not be disappointed. Having been clipped from behind by Leko, Schweinsteiger’s commitment to the cause would get the better of him as he pushed out at the Croat with both hands. True to form, Leko would collapse to the ground in a heap and Mr. de Bleeckere would immediately reach for the dreaded Rot.

Bastian Schweinsteiger is dismissed for a silly challenge on the appropriately named Jerko Leko

The FC Bayern youngster would immediately acknowledge his impetuousness by pointing to his head as he jogged off the field, and there would be yet more names to go down in the Belgian official’s book as both Leko and Lehmann saw yellow for keeping the discussion flowing on the touchline. As the game started to boil over Modrić would be added to the list for a dangerous sliding challenge on Frings, and the full-time whistle couldn’t come quickly enough.

Schweinsteiger would meet keen supporter Angela Merkel while sitting out the following match against Austria in the VIP area, and would later state that the Bundeskanzler had told him off in no uncertain terms for being a naughty boy. Meanwhile, his team mates would know that they had to perform against a home side that would have nothing to lose.

Germany: Lehmann – Lahm, Mertesacker, Metzelder, Jansen (46. Odonkor) – Fritz (82. Kurányi), Frings, Ballack (c), Podolski – Klose, Gómez (66. Schweinsteiger)

Croatia: Pletikosa – Ćorluka, R. Kovač, Šimunić, Pranjič – Srna (80. Leko), Modrić, N. Kovač, Rakitić – Kranjčar (85. Knežević), Olić (72. Petrić)

Referee: Frank de Bleeckere (Belgium)
Assistants: Peter Hermans (Belgium), Alex Verstraeten (Belgium)
Fourth Official: Stéphane Laurent Lannoy (France)

Yellow Cards: Ballack, Lehmann / Srna, Simunić, Leko, Modrić
Red Cards: – / Schweinsteiger 90.+2.

Attendance: 30,000

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