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Jun 12, 2008

Goodnight Vienna? Not quite

Austria 1-1 Poland

If Howard Webb ever fancies a beer he need only call on Ivica Vastic.

By awarding a dramatic injury-time penalty to Austria the English referee not only gifted Vastic with the opportunity to keep the co-host's tournament dream alive, but also to score their first ever European Championship goal, a feat which came with the promise of a lifetime's free beer courtesy of an Austrian brewery.

While Poland will understandably be inconsolable at the penalty decision which, once expertly converted by Vastic levelled the scores at 1-1 in Vienna's Ernst Happel Stadion, to the impartial observer it ensured a just result to a compelling game in which the stakes could not have been higher or the margins slimmer.

The significance of this game in the context of Group B was lost on no-one ahead of the game. As expected the first round of fixtures saw defeats for both Austria and Poland against Croatia and Germany respectively. Both sides knew therefore that to have any chance of reaching the quarter finals a win here in Vienna on the banks of the Danube would be vital, without it neither could have any realistic hopes of escape.

While the Austrian fans celebrate the incredible drama of the game's final moments the fact is that a draw will probably not be enough to see them progress. The draw salvaged pride, but perhaps not survival.

Buoyed by the stunning result Croatia managed to record over Germany earlier in the evening Austria approached the game with a sense that anything was possible, not matter how improbable.

Often lamented in this country for employing a cautious, defensive style of play before kick-off Austrian coach Josef Hickersberger issued an uncharacteristic clarion call: 'We must start taking risks from the start. It's all or nothing'.

Conversely, and hinting perhaps at a lack of communication within the camp, the opposite view was taken by keeper Jurgen Macho who felt that Austria shouldn't 'throw everything into attack', and called for a more considered approach, saying: 'It is important we find our way into the game'.

Suffice to say the manager and not Macho got his way and attack was the order of the day as Austria started the game in much the same fashion as they ended their last. In the final 20 minutes against Croatia on Sunday Austria threw everything at their opponents as they sought an equaliser, and so it was against Poland in the opening half hour's action as they sought to gain the upper hand.

Against Croatia Austria were unfortunate not to equalise, on Thursday night they were fortunate to finish level after wasting a hatful of gilt-edged chances in the opening 30 minutes, each met first with rapturous screams of anticipation only to be followed by groans of disbelieving despair.

The first few efforts led the wonderful Austrian fans to believe they might just be in with a chance of a famous win, but as each was squandered the feeling gradually turned to apprehension, best summed up by the body language of Hickersberger, whose appearance on the stadium screens became ever more anguished with ever missed opportunity.

He was of course right to be worried as the tide turned in an instant in the 30th minute when Roger Guerreiro latched onto a deflected shot and tapped home the opener to give Poland their first ever goal in the European Championships.

That until April this year Roger held a Brazilian passport seemed to matter not to the Polish fans who, after sitting in near silence as they endured Austria's 30-minute onslaught, erupted into spontaneous stadium-shaking pogo-ing.

With the wind knocked out of their team the Austrian supporters recoiled, shell-shocked at having gone behind in a game they could quite conceivably have been winning 4-0.

Half-time came and went, and after a stern talking to from Hickersberger Austria began the second half with every intention of again winning the midfield battle and thus forcing Poland onto the back foot.

But it didn't quite work out that way. In the first half Rene Aufhauser, the anchorman in the Austrian midfield, disrupted every Polish attack while Christoph Leitgeb along with Andreas Ivanschitz won every loose ball; in the second half the tide had turned and Poland, buoyed by their goal, were in the ascendancy.

By the 70th minute it was incredible that Austria had managed to keep the score to 1-0, such was Poland's dominance. With time running out Hickersberger, a man not prone to risk taking, rolled the dice and hauled off one of the first half's most profligate offenders, Roland Linz, and the man dubbed the Austrian David Beckham, Ivanschitz.

Although these two had been guilty of wasting good chances during the game, they had been at the centre of much of Austria's better moments. But credit to Hickersberger, the gamble paid off. With the addition of the eventual match-saver Vastic, the lively Roman Kiensat and Jurgen Samuel, Austria got back into the game and began to cause problems for the Polish.

By the 90th minute a totally deflated Austrian crowd were contemplating the ignominy of joining Switzerland in an exclusive group of European Championship hosts who have failed to escape the group stages of their own tournament since the phase was introduced in 1984. (The only other member of this group is Belgium, who underwhelmed as co-host in 2000).

But there was to be a twist in the tail. A wonderful, dramatic twist which keeps alive Austria's hopes in Euro 2008 and keeps Vastic in beer for the rest of his life.

Austrian observations
There is no way Austria should be placed as low as 92nd in the current FIFA world rankings. Of course tournament hosts generally lift their game at such events but Austria have proved that while they can be profligate in front of goal they can also create chances, and with players of Sebastian Prodl's promise and Vastic's ability it is a mystery how they have now gone eight games without a win at the Ersnt Happel Stadion.

Stadion watch
Any fears about the 55,000-capacity Ernst Happel Stadion's suitability for such a prominent role at this tournament can now be disregarded. Despite not being the most aesthetically pleasing piece of architecture in a city famed for its magnificent buildings, the stadium (which will host seven games, including the final) exceeds expectations. The cunning use of blue and green carpets hides the unsightly running track that football fans loathe to see, and despite the modest capacity's distance from the pitch the atmosphere generated is magnificent and possibly the noisiest experience I've had at a football match.

The wave
I'm sorry but I hate the stadium wave. I accept it looks really good and that people clearly enjoy it, but I still hate it. Whether you think it was born at US college football or at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, it doesn't matter it's just silly. It grates on me so much that when I take over the world it will be eradicated. Sorry. Rant over.


  • Any thoughts? Then you can email Phil Holland.

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