v Croatia, 1996 European Championship Quarter-Final
v Croatia, Old Trafford, Manchester (Quarter-Final) 23.06.1996
Klinsmann pen 20., Sammer 59. / Šuker 51.
Having emerged unscathed from their tough first phase group Germany were pitted against Group D runners-up and tournament debutants Croatia in a quarter-final that was unpredictable as it was exciting – with a semi-final against hosts England awaiting the winner.
It would be the first meeting between the two sides at full international level, and promised a showdown between a German team that had suddenly acquired the mantle of tournament favourites and a Croatian outfit that offered a mixture of passion, aggression and skill. In Davor Šuker the Croats had a striker of exceptional class, and the prospect of him taking on a defence that had not conceded a goal in three matches simply added to the anticipation.
Miroslav Blažević’s side had started off by winning their first two games against Turkey and defending champions Denmark, and by the time of their third game against Portugal they had already safely qualified for the last eight. The Croats lost 3-0 to the Portuguese, but given that there was little to them to play for nobody – least of all Berti Vogts and the Germans – would have taken this as any real indicator of form. For one, a number of first-choice players – among them keeper Dražen Ladić and the dangerous Šuker – had been rested.
The Nationaltrainer would opt for a slightly more defensive 1-2-3-2-2 formation against the dangerous Croats, with Thomas Helmer being moved back behind a defensive midfield trio of Reuter, Eilts and Ziege alongside the recalled Markus Babbel. Mehmet Scholl would replace Thomas Häßler and sit alongside Andy Möller, while up front Fredi Bobić would retain his place alongside skipper Jürgen Klinsmann. The other consistent feature would be sweeper Matthias Sammer, whose consistently solid performances had led to his being compared by many to the great Franz Beckenbauer.
On what was yet another bright and sunny afternoon in Manchester Swedish referee Leif Sundell set things in motion, with the Mannschaft once again wearing their traditional Schwarz und Weiß and the Croats wearing their highly distinctive red and white “checkerboard” design.
After a somewhat leisurely opening spell the game burst into life after five minutes, with Matthias Sammer being the first man to feature. The German sweeper was first booked for what looked like a nothing foul on Mario Stanić, before just moments later he got in front of the dangerous Davor Šuker to intercept Robert Jarni’s left-wing cross after an earlier mistake by Stefan Reuter.
It was the Swedish referee however who had been making the first real impressions on the game, following up Sammer’s booking with a yellow card for Jürgen Klinsmann’s seriously late clip on Goran Vlaović. The challenge was not one would have associated with the German skipper, and one could argue that he was actually lucky to only get a booking. Both sides were not sparing the tough challenges, and these opening exchanges would set the tone for the rest of the game.
Just short of fourteen minutes some shoddy defending by the Mannschaft saw Sammer almost put ‘keeper Andreas Köpke in trouble with a dangerous-looking back-pass, before Christian Ziege gave the ball away again to allow Vlaović in on goal only for the Croatian striker to screw his shot wide of the target. Igor Štimac became the third player to be booked after a foul on Klinsmann, and given the context of the match Dieter Eilts was lucky to escape a booking moments later after Šuker rather theatrically threw himself to the ground without being touched.
Just short of the twenty-minute mark Mehmet Scholl picked the ball up on the right, and after ambling into the Croatian half lifted a well-timed pass in the eighteen-yard box towards the advancing Sammer. Just as he was looking to gain control the libero was impeded by centre-back Nikola Jerkan, who for some curious reason then decided to slap the ball away with his left hand. Thankfully the referee on the spot to punish what had clearly a moment of madness by the Croatian defender, and immediately signalled for a penalty.
Klinsmann’s coolly-taken right-footed kick was directed low and firm to Dražen Ladić’s right, and although the keeper went the correct way the speed and placement of the shot meant that he was never going to reach it. The ball hit the back of the net, and somewhat against the run of play Germany were in front.
Having gone a behind Miroslav Blažević’s team continued to produce the better football, with the German defence looking slightly shaky. Just short of the half-hour mark Klinsmann hobbled off the pitch for treatment on the touchline, a very bad sign for a side that already been badly affected by injuries and suspensions. After a good three minutes Klinsmann made his way back onto the pitch, but was clearly not moving freely.
In what had already been an extremely difficult half an hour for the Swedish referee Andy Möller was roughly manhandled by Aljoša Asanović as he attempted to pass him down the right flank, and Thomas Helmer was lucky not to concede a penalty as he appeared to obstruct the slippery Šuker. Klinsmann was still hobbling around, and almost immediately after providing Bobić with a cross that the VfB Stuttgart striker hit high over the bar had to give in to the inevitable. Unable to continue, the German skipper was replaced by Steffen Freund five minutes before half-time with Möller being handed the captain’s armband.
The loss of their captain would be a massive blow to the injury-hit Mannschaft, particularly with the defence looking increasingly suspect against opponents that were both skillful on the ball and incredibly sneaky off it. Some three minutes before the break Möller swung a high cross in from the right towards Bobić and Ziege, with both German players ending up on the ground as Bobić bumped into Ziege who in turn collided with Croatian defender Slaven Bilić. In what was a rather surreal series of events, the prostrate Ziege was first jabbed in the chest and then clearly kicked in the ribs by Bilić, right under the nose of the Swedish referee who appeared to be completely oblivious to what was going on around him.
While the tempramental Bilić was able to walk away without punishment, Ziege hauled himself up from the ground and a groggy-looking Bobić made his way off to the touchline holding the base of his left shoulder. With Bobić strike-partner Klinsmann already off the field, things were not looking good at all up front for Berti Vogts’ side who would have been more than grateful to hear the whistle blow for the end of what had been a testing and increasingly ill-tempered forty-five minutes.
When the two sides came out for the second half it was clear that Bobić’s injury had been worse than at first thought, as Stefan Kuntz made his way out onto the pitch to join Mehmet Scholl in what was a makeshift attack. It took less than two minutes for the game to quickly pick up where it had left off at the end of the first half, with Steffen Freund getting a Zvonimir Boban elbow in the face – albeit accidental – that left him bleeding on the ground and Andy Möller being unceremiously blocked by Nikola Jerkan. Reuter meanwhile was also unlucky to escape a second booking for a late challenge on Asanović.
Freund returned to the field having had treatment for his head wound, and was still probably recovering from the effects when just after the fifty-minute mark he was left to deal with an awkward-looking back-pass from Sammer just outside his own penalty area. Unable to clear, Freund was robbed of the ball by Nikola Jurčević who found Šuker out to his right. With a sublime display of skill and technique, Šuker drew the advance of Andy Köpke before dragging the ball past the ‘keeper with his studs and side-footing it into the empty net.
Their dirty play and gamesmanship notwithstanding, it was hard to deny the fact that the Croats probably deserved their equaliser. Battered, bruised and shorn of their strike force, it was now up to the Mannschaft to gather themselves together and show what they were made of. The Croats were rampant, and the pressure was clearly on.
Just as things appeared to be slipping away for Berti Vogts’ side, the Croats once again chose to shoot themselves in the foot as Štimac, already on a booking, came through Scholl from behind with the ball nowhere in sight. The referee saw this one, Štimac was sent on his way, and the Croats were down to ten men.
Less that three minutes after Štimac’s dismissal the play was now at the other end, as a well-placed pass from Scholl found Markus Babbel in space down the right. On what was a rare foray forward for the full-back, Babbel forced his way to end edge of the penalty area and shrugged off the challenge of Jerkan before floating a well-directed cross into the box. Having made another run into the box, Sammer beat Bilić to the ball and controlled it beautifully before stroking it with his right foot into the left-hand corner of the net past Ladić. From out of nowhere, Germany had their noses in front again.
Šuker twice directed headers straight at Köpke as the Croats tried to respond, but their being a man down was slowly beginning to tell as the Germans found themselves able to exploit the spaces that were starting to appear on the field as their opponents started to commit men further forward. With just under twenty minutes remaining Ziege found Kuntz down the left that beat the Croatian offside trap, and the substitute delivered a teasing cross that flew over the ‘keeper and across the six-yard box. Scholl arrived to meet it on the volley at the far post, but sent his shot just wide of the target.
With the Germans starting to dictate the tempo of the game and the Croats starting to run out of steam, the final stages of the match would be surprisingly easy for Berti Vogts’ side. The referee meanwhile appeared to have given up completely on enforcing any sort of discipline, as Boban got away with a late hack on Kuntz, substitute Mladen Mladenović shoved Ziege into the advertising hoardings, and Mario Stanić charged into Scholl.
The impressive Scholl was replaced by Thomas Häßler with two minutes to go, and Andy Köpke capped off another solid performance by bravely collecting a pinpoint Jarni cross from under the nose of Šuker as the Croats desperately sought to take the game into extra time.
When Leif Sundell finally blew his whistle to signal the end of the match, the relief of the German players both on and off the field was palpable. There would be no loud cheers or fist-pumping celebrations, merely an acknowledgement of a hard-fought struggle that had been both physically and emotionally draining. Köpke lay flat on his back in his goalmouth, clearly glad that it was all over.
Having worked their way past the Croats the Mannschaft would now face hosts England in what promised to be an even more testing semi-final encounter at Wembley, particularly with suspensions and injuries having reduced the squad to its bare bones. Berti Vogts’ side had dug deep to reach the last four, and to have any real chance of making their way past an in-form home side without their injured captain they would have to dig even deeper.
Germany: Köpke – Sammer – Babbel, Helmer – Reuter, Eilts, Ziege – Scholl (88. Häßler), Möller – Klinsmann (c) (40. Freund), Bobić (46. Kuntz)
Croatia: Ladić – Jerkan – Bilić, Štimac – Stanić, Asanović, Jurčević (78. Mladenović), Boban, Jarni – Šuker, Vlaović
Referee: Leif Sundell (Sweden)
Assistants: Kenneth Petersson (Sweden), Mikael Hansson (Sweden)
Fourth Official: Karl-Erik Nilsson (Sweden)
Yellow Cards: Sammer, Klinsmann / Štimac
Red Cards: – / Štimac 56.