Clemens Fritz was hailed by the German media as one of the driving forces behind the three-times European champions' convincing 2-0 victory over Poland in their UEFA EURO 2008 opener, but just four days after his best international display to date, the Werder Bremen right-back and his team-mates came crashing to earth with a bump. The 27-year-old was powerless to prevent a disciplined and fluid Croatia side winning 2-1 in Klagenfurt, sparking joyous celebrations among their sizeable support afterwards.

Whereas the east Europeans unquestionably now rate as potential trophy winners rather than just dark horses, Joachim Low's men showed no trace of the invention and physical presence which had overpowered Poland on the same ground a few days earlier. Fritz' uncharacteristically passive display, in which he hardly ever attempted to beat his man in a one-on-one situation, symbolised German woes on the night. "We've clearly allowed Croatia to take us by surprise, and that shouldn't be happening," the man capped 18 times by his country confessed to

Fritz and Co unable to dominate
Fritz and the entire German team were commendably self-critical after a painful setback against a Croatia side including no fewer than six players who earn their wages in the German Bundesliga. "There's no getting away from it, we had a really bad day today," the Bremen man admitted after starting in right midfield as against Poland, before switching to his more familiar berth at right-back after the break.

The German No8 lamented his side's inability to make attacking progress down either flank across the full 90 minutes. Furthermore, a subdued Michael Ballack, playing alongside rather than ahead of Torsten Frings as a second holding midfielder, rarely featured in and around the Croatia box. As a result, front two Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez lacked both supply and support. Despite another convincing display from in-form Lukas Podolski in left midfield, it was never going to be enough against a team of Croatia's quality.

Room for improvement
Bayern Munich marksman Podolski has now netted all three of his country's goals at the tournament and is currently joint leading scorer with Spain's David Villa, although Podolski needs his team-mates to find form too, as Fritz readily acknowledged: "There's no question we'll need to improve significantly if we're to overcome Austria and hopefully progress further in the tournament."

However, Fritz is far from downhearted, as he believes Germany have by no means showed their true potential yet, even against Poland. Defeat to Croatia could plausibly be explained as a slip-up, and perhaps even a timely wake-up call. In the minus column, the right-sided player and his team-mates will lament Bastian Schweinsteiger's moment of madness and subsequent red card right at the end of the game, ruling the creative midfielder out of the equation in the short term and earning him a fusillade of criticism from his own ranks.

Impressed by Croatian flexibility

Most experts feel an in-form Germany side has what it takes to claim the trophy, but on the flip side, the relatively young players are capable of losing composure on an off day and suffering fully deserved defeats. And in fairness to Low's men, the on-song Croats displayed supreme flexibility and tactical nous on Thursday, appearing the fastest team at the tournament so far as they alternated between 4-5-1 when not in possession to a potent 4-3-3 when on the attack. A decade after an unforgettable 3-0 triumph in the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ quarter-finals, Croatia were again simply too good for the Germans.

Fritz made no effort to counter that impression. "They have a really strong team and they've proved it again today. They themselves have always insisted they were among the favourites for the title." The 27-year-old came across as wistful and perhaps even a shade downhearted as he spoke those words. How dearly he would have liked to make the same statement about himself and his own team…