Croatia look to spoil Austria’s party
Austria and Croatia open their European Championship campaigns on Sunday with completely different expectations.
Surviving the group stage would be a miraculous success for Austria, while Croatia sees itself at least as an outside favorite for the title after convincingly qualifying with a win at England in its final match.
Austria qualified automatically because it is co-hosting the tournament with Switzerland.
"I don't think it was a disadvantage to play only friendlies for years," Austria coach Josef Hickersberger said Friday. "We choose some top-draw opponents and therefore lost many times. That created the same pressure on us like in competitive matches. We are ready for Croatia."
Croatia is ready to spoil Austria's opening party at the sold-out Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna. "I believe in my team," Croatia coach Slaven Bilic said. "We will try to impose our (attacking) style of play and win the game."
Croatia has a flawless record against Austria, winning all three previous matches. But Austria will try to put history aside when it competes at its first ever European Championship and first major event since the 1998 World Cup.
"Based on the home advantage, I rate our chances on Sunday at 40 percent," Hickersberger said. "Croatia is a world-class team, so my prediction is very optimistic."
In their current 23-man squads, Austria and Croatia have no injury worries but both teams lost some players due to injuries prior to the tournament.
"Their coach is a gentleman," Bilic said of Hickersberger. "And I think he believes that they have more than a 40 percent chance. ... Thinking about it, 40 percent is not that bad."
Austria faced little problems in replacing goalkeeper Helge Payer because it has Juergen Macho and Alexander Manninger, although Hickersberger has yet to announce who will start.
Croatia, however, was still struggling to compensate for the absence of Eduardo da Silva, who scored 10 of Croatia's 28 goals in qualifying.
No Croatia forward has scored a goal in an international match since the Arsenal striker was forced out of the squad by a reckless tackle in February.
Austria midfielder Christoph Leitgeb, whose father is Croatian, praised the technical skills of the opponent.
"That's their main asset," Leitgeb said. "In midfield and attack they are really good, but they have weaknesses in defense. The central defense is rather slow, so we should take advantage of that."
Austria was expected to rely on a solid midfield with veteran Rene Aufhauser in a defensive role and captain Andreas Ivanschitz and Umit Korkmaz playing just behind the front line.
"I have no preferences for a particular system," said Aufhauser, who would likely go up against face Croatia star Luka Modric. "We have good players in midfield who are able to play different styles."
Corluka passed fit
Croatian defender Vedran Corluka has been passed fit and was named Saturday by coach Slaven Bilic in his team.
Corluka had been in doubt after injurying his Achilles tendon on Friday.