You could call this a breakthrough season for Austrian football, but it is a breakthrough with a catch, writes David Shonfield.
After the disappointment of Euro 2016, highlighted by an unthinkable defeat against Hungary, their leading club has enjoyed an unprecedented league success, while a young Austrian team have also won a European title at the first attempt.
The catch is that unique league success came in Germany, not Austria, and the European title was the Uefa youth league — the equivalent of the Champions League for academy sides.
Hats off to Red Bull: Their German affiliate RB Leipzig achieved a stunning result in the Bundesliga, runners-up to Bayern Munich, ahead of Borussia Dortmund, in their first season in the top flight.
You can argue it’s a manufactured success, and it’s certainly resented as such by fans of other German clubs, but it was also a deserved success, based on some excellent performances in the first half of the season, before Bayern’s strength in depth allowed them to go on and finish 15 points clear.
For all the controversy about Red Bull’s business plan there is some pride back in their home city, where the local club — RB Salzburg — have won the Austrian Bundesliga for the fourth time running.
The Leipzig side is coached by an Austrian and two of their stalwarts, Marcel Sabitzer and Stefan Ilsanker, are Austrian, although only Sabitzer was named in the squad to face Ireland. The squad also contains four from RB Salzburg, largely untried players — three of them have two caps between them — as compared to the veterans, such as David Alaba and Marc Janko, who are mainly based in Germany.
One concern for Austria manager Marcel Koller is that most of his established players have only had an average season. The other is that the dominance of RB Salzburg has come at the expense of Austria’s traditional clubs, above all in Vienna — and that Salzburg are in danger of becoming a feeder club for Leipzig.
Hans Krankl, perhaps Austria’s greatest player, is now one of their main football writers. His verdict on the season just gone can’t make comfortable reading for Koller. “Team of the season are naturally RB Salzburg,” he says, “and I never would have believed they would win the title so easily.”
The departure of their main striker, Jonathan Soriano, for China was expected to lead to a closer title race. Instead Salzburg doubled their winning margin, finishing 18 points ahead of Austria Vienna, with the rest nowhere.
“The Bulls’ margin of victory might not have been so great,” says Krankl, “but it’s also because Austria and Sturm Graz have become weaker. I really don’t want to talk about Rapid (his former club). This was the biggest disappointment ever. It was never as bad as this before.”
Austrian football’s current standing is reflected in Krankl’s nominations for player of the season, among them Salzburg defender Andre Wisdom, on loan from Liverpool after previous spells at Derby, West Brom, and Norwich. Wisdom, says Krankl, “is ready for the Premier League”, which will be welcome news for Jurgen Klopp, but it does not say much for the local talent when the top defender is a foreign loanee.
The future does look a little brighter. The Salzburg academy side beat Manchester City on penalties in the youth league before crushing Paris Saint-Germain and going on to beat Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, and Benfica. They have a good group of young Austrian players as well as talented foreign imports.
None of these youngsters is ready to make the step up, however, although 18-year-old Kevin Danso is in the squad after just a handful of games for Augsburg.
Expectations for Sunday are low and apprehension high, especially given Ireland’s victory last November at the Happel Stadium, where traditionally Austria have been hard to beat.
They would have liked to train for this match on the same pitch, but Vienna’s city authorities refused to oblige. Coldplay are performing there on Sunday evening, with the concert due to start at the same time as kick-off in Dublin. A time for Ireland to roll the dice, perhaps, and feel the fear in the enemy’s eyes…
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