The hosts with the least hope to spring surprise on Croatia

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The Independent Online

Host nations are always nervous, but few have as good reason to be so as Austria. The recent 5-1 demolition of Malta may have lifted them back into the top 100 in the Fifa rankings (they are 92nd, just behind Mozambique) but the Austrians know they are rank outsiders at their own party. That was only their second win in 16 matches.

Eighty years ago, under their English coach Jimmy Hogan, Austria were probably the finest team on the Continent, but the European Championships did not begin until 1960, by which time the "Wunderteam" were a distant memory.

This is the first time that Austria have competed in the finals, and their first aim is to avoid being humiliated. In the build-up to the tournament there was even a fans' campaign arguing that Austria should withdraw their team to spare the nation embarrassment. When England were hosts, they drew the opening games of both the 1966 World Cup and the 1996 European Championship, and Austria would be happy to do the same against Croatia tonight.

The Croatians have greater ambitions. On the basis that Greece won four years ago, Slaven Bilic, their astute coach, believes Croatia could be the surprise team this time. England, having been beaten home and away, know how talented Croatia's footballers are but they are missing Eduardo da Silva, who has been far more influential for Bilic than he has, to date, been for Arsène Wenger.

"I believe that we are strong enough to take the title," Bilic said. "Look at our qualifying record. We're not only hoping we can give anyone a decent game, we're expecting it.

"We have grounds for hope: we have a good team, a quality team. We qualified from one of the toughest groups, beating England twice. We also had to play Russia and Macedonia and we were the first side to win in Israel for four or five years."

Bilic added: "There is a very realistic possibility a surprise package will win like Greece did in 2004, and I think we are quite capable of doing it."

Croatia have won all three friendlies they have played against Austria, including a 4-1 thrashing the last time the two met in Vienna two years ago. At one stage Josef Hickersberger, the Austrian coach, said it would be "a world sensation" if Austria merely qualified from the group. Now the tournament is upon us, he is more positive. "We are very optimistic about giving the Croats a good game," he said. "We can even spring a surprise because we are playing at home and our fans will get behind us."

The Rapid Vienna midfielder Umit Korkmaz and Salzburg's Christoph Leitgeb went further. "Everybody is underestimating us and we will strike like a bomb," said Korkmaz.

Leitgeb added: "The chances of us reaching the quarter-finals are high. Croatia have weak-nesses in defence, which we have to take advantage of."

Hickersberger is yet to reveal his starting goalkeeper, with the choice between Alex Manninger, once of Arsenal, and the former Sunderland No 1 Jürgen Macho. "I've told the goalkeepers who will start but I will not disclose it," said Hickersberger, adding gratuitously: "We have very good goalkeepers, and if England had had any of our top three on the road to the Euros they would have been here."

The Middlesbrough defender Emanuel Pogatetz has been struggling with a calf problem but is expected to play. Wigan's Paul Scharner is not involved, having fallen out with Hickersberger and, unlike Pogatetz – who once described Hickersberger as "tactically inept" –he has not made peace. The Croatian-born striker Ivica Vastic is likely to be on the bench.

The Croatians are expected to include Portsmouth's Niko Kranjcar, the Tottenham-bound Luka Modric and Vedran Corluka of Manchester City. The defender Dario Simic, who yesterday indicated a desire to join Celtic, is likely to be among the substitutes.

Another veteran, Niko Kovac, who plays his football in Austria with Salzburg, will anchor the midfield. Croatia will be closely watched by Fabio Capello, who is scouting them ahead of England's Word Cup qualifier in Zagreb in September.

Four years ago, the hosts Portugal reached the final after an unexpected loss to Greece in the opening game of Euro 2004. Austria may well also succumb to defeat, but they are unlikely to recover the same way.

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