Both smarting from defeats last Friday and trailing the play-off spot by three points, Austria and Ireland face off in Vienna desperately clinging to hope. Georg Sander of 90minuten.au traces the recent development of Austrian football, claiming the current defence is a weakness, and that former Salzburg coach Trapattoni still holds a fascination for the natives – an allure that has all but disappeared in Ireland.
Before we can make up our minds, we should go back to the year 1995, when Bosman won at the European court and Austria joined the European Union. After losing pace with the heights of international football with the beginning of commercialisation in the 60’s, Austria fought its way back. In 1978, 1982, 1990 and 1998 the national squad had qualified for the World Cup. Austria Vienna, Rapid Vienna and Austria Salzburg qualified for club finals in ’78, ’86, ’94 and ’96, losing them all. But 1995 and Bosman saw an earthquake that shook Austrian football, with the effects still felt more than ten years after the event.
Obviously the whole European Union project brought an influx of talented players to Austria. Sturm Graz really showed up on the international stage. Yes, the players from outside of Austria were great players like Zlatko Kranjcar, Tibor Nyilasi, and in the 90’s, Jan Aage Fjörtoft or the older Dejan Savicevic. After 95 and at the beginning of the new millennium, the club managers began buying 3rd class, not even 2nd class, foreign recruits, killing whole age-groups of Austrian players. This left the managers of the national squad with players who were either just too old or too young, having hardly anyone between 23 and 31, meaning they lacked experience.
After the European Championship in Switzerland and Austria in 2008, there came a new generation of football players in Austria. It is the team that finished fourth in the U20 World Cup of 2007, giving football in the Alps new blood. Martin Harnik (Stuttgart), Veli Kavlak (Besiktas), Zlatko Junuzovic, Sebastian Prödl (Bremen) or Julian Baumgartlinger (Mainz) are the core of the new team. With manager Marcel Koller, Austria also have someone from abroad, coming from the outside, with new ideas and tactics. He, and all the players earning their money in Germany, Spain, England or Turkey, are the exact opposite to everything Austria had before: overpaid players from abroad and not from the strong clubs in Vienna, Salzburg or Graz, and a “funny” uncle or grandfather as coach.
Before the ‘Koller-Era’, Austria were good at home – but funny to embarassing away. Former headcoach Didi Constantini, trainee of superstar Ernst Happel, pushed Germany to the edge in Vienna before losing 2-6 away at Gelsenkirchen. Not to mention the previous appearance in Latvia 08 when Austria managed to lose 0-2 four days after beating France at home.
The current Austrian side is still a team in transition. Drawn as fourth seeds, fans here were confident from the outset of finishing third ahead of Ireland, something that could be deemed a relative success. But the performance away in Germany and the defeat of Sweden had Austrians dreaming of Brazil. The dream is not yet dead but first comes the visit of the Irish.
Some years ago, Ireland, as seen here from the top of the Alps, were a bunch of bouncers, hooligans or rugby-players, playing straight 4-4-2 and kick and rush. Then came Giovanni Trapattoni and he adapted it. Austria had it’s own ‘Trapattoni-Experience’, when he managed Red Bull Salzburg from 2006 to 2008. The ‘Maestro’ preferred four full backs, three central and, first and foremost, defensive midfielders, as well as wingers and one striker. He won the championship but was dismissed as the pretty judgemental crowd in Salzburg wanted more attack on the pitch.
“Austria’s reaction to Trapattoni was the same as to every superstar. Take, for example, a pub two days before a U2 show in Vienna. There will be four guys talking about how bad the band have become and that they were better in the 80’s, not knowing if they will go to the concert – but of course they will go, because U2 are superstars.”
You could exchange U2 and Rihanna or Cristiano Ronaldo, it will be the same. Austrians are always complaining about ‘someone who’s made it,’ but still they’ll be fascinated. As it was with the Maestro. The crowd complained about a lot of 1-0-wins, but still it was run by someone who was something.
Observing from outside, Trapattoni and Ireland seemed to fit. There are some fine footballers like Aiden McGeady and Robbie Keane,who is always good for a goal. Maybe Ireland still plays a little kick and rush as in the home match in the Aviva, but Trapattoni added the fine mark of Italian tactics in defence – and knowledge of the opponents. He will know that Alaba in the central midfield is the heart and core of Austria, that now-Stoke-player Marko Arnautovic is a diva, Junuzovic is small and striker Marc Janko, who he coached in Salzburg, seems to be big and strong, but is anything but a stalwart. And that Austria needs a lot of efforts to score a goal.
But the real Achilles’ heel is the defence. The four guys in the back – expected to be Christan Fuchs (Schalke) on the left, Bologna’s Gyuri Garics on the right and two out of the trio trio of former M’borogh-full back Emmanuel Pogatetz (Nürnberg), Aleksandar Dragovic (Dinamo Kiew) and Sebastian Prödl (Bremen) – are like they invented Murphy’s Law – whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.
There will be situations in the game where, by anticipation, everyone else but the player who should act, knows what to do. And one hundred percent the defender will do the worst possible thing. He will pass the ball to the one colleague who gets pressed on instead of the free one, will head the ball instead of punting it out of the danger zone or just shoot an own goal. This, paired with the vast amount of efforts Austria need to score a goal, are the two big failures. It is the lack of individual class, partly as experience, in the attack as well as in the defence that robs Austria of the points. Like in Kazachstan, where Austria couldn’t reach more than a goalless draw, or even at the Aviva, where they could have won as well.
If I was asked directly about the result, I’d say it will be a 2-1, not knowing who’ll score two goals and when. Both squads follow their manager’s ideas, and they could not be more contrary. The table says that there are three teams separated by three points, and it could yet become even closer. In the last three games, anything can happen. But you can bet that only the one winning on the 10th of September in Vienna will still have an outside chance to finish second.
Georg Sander a journalist with weekly sports newspaper Sportzeitung and Editor at 90minuten.at with a critical focus on Austrian football.