For the watching Fabio Capello, the first match of this tournament to be played in its Austrian half offered reasons both to be encouraged and to be fearful. Croatia, England's first serious opponents when the World Cup qualifiers begin in the autumn, were manifestly superior, their class implicit in nearly every touch, but they had a desperate struggle attempting to put away their game.
Given the perfect start when Luka Modric rolled in a fourth-minute penalty, Croatia initially looked as if they would cruise to three points. But as the game wore on they retreated into defence and were nearly undone. Austria spent the last half-hour laying siege to the Croatian goal.
While Capello will have observed this match with mixed feelings, any Tottenham fans watching will have felt only anticipation. Modric dictated the tempo of the game. Though a slight figure he was difficult to dispossess, even the giant Martin Stranzl failing to restrain him. He has a gymnast's balance but a miner's toughness.
A few days before playing Croatia, England had beaten Austria 1-0. Six of the Austrians remained in the starting XI, the contrast with Croatia underlining the problems Josef Hickersberger has had building a team. Having usually fielded a back four he opted yesterday for a back three and wing-backs. England did the same, to lamentable effect, when losing to Croatia in Belgrade. As he did then, Slaven Bilic told his team to draw the centre-halves wide, the classic way to play a back three. This paid immediate dividends.
Modric received a quickly taken throw-in, skipped around Starnzl, and found Ivica Olic driving into the box. The Hamburg striker was too quick for Rene Aufhauser, who bowled him over. Emanuel Pogatetz was booked for leading the protests and the Middlesbrough defender should have paid for his indiscipline 26 minutes later. Comprehensively beaten on the flank by Olic he pulled him back. The Dutch referee reached for his cards, hesitated, then took the soft option. Although Olic had previously twice gone close from set pieces, Croatia were already showing signs of caution. For the third match in succession, the better team, having scored first, increasingly sat back and invited their inferiors on to them, seeking to score on the counter-attack.
The ploy worked perfectly for Portugal on Saturday, but the Czechs only escaped by the width of the crossbar. Croatia, too, rode their luck. Austria wasted a succession of half-chances but then stretched Pletikosa, who had to go full length to deny Umit Korkmaz. In injury time Roman Kienast rose high, but his header flashed wide, leaving both sides with bittersweet emotions.
Austria (3-4-1-2): Macho (AEK Athens); Prodl (Sturm Graz), Stranzl (Spartak Moscow), Pogatetz (Middlesbrough); Standfest (Austria Vienna), Saumel (Sturm Graz), Aufhauser (Salzburg), Gercaliu (Austria Vienna); Ivanschitz (Panathinaikos); Harnik (Werder Bremen), Linz (Sporting Braga). Substitutes: Vastic (Linz) for Saumel, 60; Korkmaz (Rapid Vienna) for Gercaliu, 69; Kienast (Ham-Kam) for Linz, 73.
Croatia (4-1-3-2): Pletikosa (Spartak Moscow); Corluka (Manchester City), R Kovac (Borussia Dortmund), Simunic (Hertha Berlin), Pranjic (Heerenveen); N Kovac (Salzburg); Srna (Shaktar Donetsk), Modric (Tottenham), Kranjcar (Portsmouth); Petric (Borussia Dortmund), Olic (Hamburg). Substitutes: Knezevic (Livorno) for Krancjar, 61; Budan (Parma) for Petric, 72; Vukojevic (Dynamo Zagreb) for Olic, 83.
Referee: P Vink (Netherlands).
Booked: Austria Pogatetz, Saumel, Prodl; Croatia R Kovac.
Man of the match: Modric.Reuse content