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Ballack class should see Germany through
Kevin Fylan | June 03, 2008 16:32 IST
With Michael Ballack [Images] back fit and in the form of his life, Germany [Images] look stronger favourites than ever to win Group B at Euro 2008 [Images], with Croatia, Poland and co-hosts Austria likely to be scrapping for second place.
Ballack had an outstanding second half of the season for Chelsea and the 31-year-old midfielder capped a great performance against Serbia with the winning goal in the team's last match before departing for Switzerland [Images].
"I've never seen Ballack in better form," said Guenter Netzer, the former midfielder who inspired West Germany's European championship success in 1972. "He can and will make the difference for Germany this time."
Coach Joachim Loew has plenty of other players of proven quality, including goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, midfielder Torsten Frings and striker Miroslav Klose, the top scorer at the World Cup in 2006, when Germany finished third on home soil.
Germany, three times European champions, play their opening match this time against Poland in Klagenfurt on June 8.
The two sides also met at the World Cup, when a late goal from Oliver Neuville saw the Germans to a 1-0 win and effectively sealed Poland's first-round exit.
Poland are now coached by Dutchman Leo Beenhakker, who masterminded their first successful qualifying campaign for a European championship.
Their on-field inspiration will come from Euzebiusz Smolarek, son of Polish international great Wlodzimierz Smolarek and scorer of nine goals in qualifying.
Croatia have not one but three "magicians" in their team, according to coach Slaven Bilic, and they will need them all in top form to make up for losing Eduardo da Silva, who scored 10 goals in the qualifiers, to injury.
"We won't reach the quarter-finals just by keeping it tight at the back," Bilic said after a disappointing 1-1 draw with Hungary on Saturday. "We need our three magicians Luka Modric, Niko Kranjcar and Mladen Petric to make things happen."
Croatia ultimately denied England [Images] a place at Euro 2008 when they won 3-2 at Wembley and after topping their qualifying group will fancy their chances of joining Germany in the last eight.
Austria, who are Croatia's first opponents, are the weakest side not only in the group but in the entire tournament and it will take more than just magic if they are to go through.
Josef Hickersberger is in his second spell as coach -- the first was doomed by an embarrassing defeat by the Faroe Islands -- and his real target will be avoiding further humiliation.
Results in friendlies over the past two years have been largely terrible and it will be a surprise if they are still in with a chance when they come to face the Germans in their third match in Vienna on June 16.