Euro 2016's Surprise Package: Austria Preview

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Das Team are making only their second appearance at a European Championships this summer, which may come as a surprise to many as it is a country of some prestige.

Austria has produced greats such as movie star-cum-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, world-renowned composer Wolfgang Mozart and Formula One legend Niki Lauda, but footballing endeavour has always seemed to evade the landlocked nation, until now perhaps as they enter Euro 2016 as a surprise package.

The side, led by Marcel Koller and captained by Leicester City’s Christian Fuchs, will be looking to buck the trend at this tournament by bettering their previous record in major competitions.

European Championships History

Austria’s only previous participation at a European Championships came in 2008, qualifying automatically as a virtue of being joint hosts with Switzerland. The Alpine nation were not expected to make a marked impression on the tournament, being ranked 80th in the world at the time, and did not exceed expectations, finishing third in Group B with a single point. Austria debuted in the Championships by succumbing 1-0 to Croatia, before scoring their only goal of the campaign in a 1-1 draw against fellow Euros debutants Poland.

In their final group game, the Austrians fell 2-0 at the hands of eventual finalists Germany, bowing out of the tournament at the first hurdle. Despite only playing three games in the tournament’s history and scoring one goal, it was that goal that made history, as Ivica Vastic’s 93rd minute penalty versus Poland, made him the oldest scorer at a European Championships, at the age of 38 years and 257 days.

Euro 2016 Qualifying

Having surged up the FIFA World Rankings in recent years, Austria qualified with a resounding unbeaten record of nine victories and one draw. In a group also containing Russia and Sweden, Austria performed exceptionally well to top the group and drop only two points, conceding just five goals in the process. They opened their qualifying campaign with the sole draw, coming at home against top seeds Sweden thanks to a David Alaba penalty, before going on to win nine qualifying matches consecutively. Following a 2-1 victory over Moldova in Matchday 2, Austria went five matches without conceding, racking up a 5-0 demolition of Liechtenstein along the way.

Austria acquired four wins by the 1-0 scoreline, highlighting their resilient defence and structured, pragmatic manner of winning matches, often against opponents who would play with ten men behind the ball on difficult pitches. However, Das Team could be equally free-scoring as they were frugal in front of goal, registering a 4-1 away win in Sweden and a hard fought, late 3-2 triumph over a feisty Montenegrin side. Austria qualified with a total of 22 goals scored, and a goal difference of +17, one of the more impressive records in Europe.

Tournament Build-Up

Austria’s four friendly results in the build-up to the tournament have been mixed, losing two and winning two. The two victories came two months apart, with a 2-1 win claimed against fellow tournament competitors Albania at the end of March, followed by a 2-1 win over minnows Malta on 31st May. With Albania perceived as the weakest side this summer, it is understandable that some would see a 2-1 victory having fielded a strong team, as a disappointment for Austria. Nevertheless, a win is a win, and the same can be said for the Malta result. If it wasn’t for a comical own goal by poster-boy and Bavarian Wunderkind, David Alaba, Austria would have coasted to a leisurely 2-0 win.

Sandwiched in between these two results was a disappointing defeat at the hands of Turkey, losing 2-1 at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion, which can be attributed to a mistake by goalkeeper Ramacan Ozcan, whose poor clearance gifted an opportunity to Turkish captain Arda Turan, allowing him to lob the scrambling Ozcan from 30 yards. A strong, but somewhat weaker side started that fixture, with Ruben Okotie preferred in attack to stalwart Marc Janko.

Austria most recently succumbed to a Netherlands side hardly adroit of any real quality and consistency, who toiled to a 4th place finish in Euro 2016 qualifying, missing out on the tournament altogether. Their 2-0 defeat by the Netherlands proved that if Austria are to be taken seriously at this summer’s competition, they need to show less respect to the bigger sides and be less in awe of their standing in world football. Tentative performances in the latter rounds could cost them dearly and see them knocked out.

All in all, Austria’s preparation has been a mixed bag of results, showing that their defensive resilience needs to be honed and tweaked against better opponents, and that individual errors due to lack of concentration and complacency must be drummed out of the players before their opener against Hungary on 14th June.

How They Will Line Up

Marcel Koller stuck by a number of key players during qualifying which is a testament to their excellent record. 32-year old goalkeeper Robert Almer played all 900 minutes of Austria’s qualifiers, picking up six clean sheets along the way, ensuring his name will don the back of the Number One shirt at this summer’s tournament.

A solid back-line of Florian Klein (Right-Back), Martin Hinteregger, Aleksandar Dragovic (Centre-Backs) and Premier League-winning captain Christian Fuchs (Left-Back) was a mainstay in qualifying and throughout the recent friendlies. Minor rotation has occurred but relatively infrequently and it would be no surprise to see that back four line-up in Austria’s first Group F game.

While star-man David Alaba is often used at full-back for club side Bayern Munich, the Vienna-born 23-year old is commonly deployed in central midfield in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 formation. As designated penalty-taker and his wealth of Bundesliga and Champions League experience, it is expected that Alaba will be a certainty to start every game this summer. Alongside him in central midfield, is likely to be 44-cap Julian Baumgartlinger. The scruffy-haired midfielder recently signed for Bayer Leverkusen after impressing at Mainz over the past two seasons.

On the wing is where Stoke City’s maverick Marko Arnautovic is likely to be found. Useful on either side of the pitch, Austria’s second-most famous ‘Arnie’ remained a constant fixture in the side over the ten qualifying games. On the opposite flank will be Martin Harnik whose 14 international goals prove that he does have an eye for goal. At 29 years of age, he can be relied upon as one of the more senior figures in the starting line-up, bringing a cool-headed approach to patient build-up play.

In attack, Koller had his preferred pairing in qualifying but has begun to experiment as the tournament gets closer. Zlatko Junuzovic, another Bundesliga representative is most likely to feature in the Number Ten role behind the veteran striker Marc Janko, whose record at international level, for a side that aren’t at the pinnacle of world football, is excellent to say the least. Ruben Okotie may stake a claim for a starting berth up-front after a promising domestic season but Koller is most probably going to remain with his tried and tested duo of Junuzovic and Janko to lead the line.

Key Players

Undoubtedly Austria’s key player is midfield playmaker David Alaba as the Bayern man’s repertoire of skills and range of passing vastly surpasses anyone else in the Austria camp, which is accredited to the 218 first team appearances for the Bavarian giants, playing alongside the likes of Thomas Muller, Robert Lewandowski and Manuel Neuer, under the stewardship of Ottmar Hitzfeld and most recently the enigmatic Pep Guardiola.

Marc Janko’s towering figure, standing at 6ft 5in tall, will be an image many Group F defenders will be having nightmares about. His seven goals in qualifying was an impressive haul for a 32-year old who now plies his trade in neighbouring Switzerland, after a prolific season down under for Sydney FC. Janko’s form going into Euro 2016 is red hot, netting 20 times in 29 appearances in the 2015/16, propelling FC Basel to yet another Swiss Super League title. The son of a former Olympic Javelin-thrower, it is no surprise that Janko can impose himself well on opposition defenders in the penalty area, which could very well play to the Austrians’ advantage this summer.

One man who could be key to Austria’s and Janko’s success in front of goal is left-back Christian Fuchs. Fresh from the euphoria of the biggest underdog story in sporting history by achieving the impossible in winning the Premier League with Leicester City, Fuchs has had an excellent season, registering the most assists in the Premier League for a defender during the 2015/16 campaign. The captain’s wand of a left foot could be pivotal in delivering a hammer-blow to the opposition’s chances of progression if his pinpoint accuracy of this season can be transferred into Euro 2016 and onto Marc Janko’s head, atop his 1.96m frame.

Group F Fixtures

Austria get underway on 14th June against Hungary as firm favourites to kick off their second Euros campaign with a win. Hungary qualified, albeit uninspiring throughout, via the play-offs after finishing third behind Northern Ireland and Romania. Their ten games managed a meagre 20 goals in total, seven of which came in a 4-3 defeat to Greece. Combined with Austria’s stern defence, a free-scoring affair is unlikely but they should dispose of Hungary with the obvious talent in their ranks.

Their second fixture sees them face off with the might of Portugal four days later, which could be a decider in who tops the group. A youthful Portuguese side is there for the taking if Austria can exploit them, but the magician that is Cristiano Ronaldo will prove a tough test for Austria’s back line.

Austria finish Group F, but hopefully not their Championships campaign, with a game against Iceland, who will be making their first appearance at any major tournament. The Icelandic’s naivety and awe at participating could be exploited by some of Austria’s more experienced, and travelled old heads. Nonetheless Iceland will be no pushovers as they will want to impress, having already completed the double over the Netherlands in qualifying, seeing a relatively open Group F as a chance of improbable progression to the Round of 16.

Austria Preview – A Summary

Austria could prove to be Euro 2016’s surprise package. Nobody is tipping Das Team to emulate Greece’s 2004 heroics and win the tournament, but getting through to the Quarter-Finals would be a massive achievement for a country who have never won a match at a European Championships. The last time Austria progressed past the Second Round of a major tournament was the 1954 World Cup where they finished third, but that is a world away from modern football, and the vast majority will be far too young to remember. The wealth of experience mixed talent and the prospect of a generous draw in Group F presents ample opportunity for the side to make history and improve on their Euros record, with a tantalising Quarter-Final tie with France a mouth-watering, but improbable possibility for the Austrian faithful.