Austria could be a dark horse at Euro 2016


Austria's David Alaba and Zlatko Junuzovic (Hans Punz/AP)

Decades of underachievement washed away when Austria qualified for the European Championship for the first time—its only previous appearance came in 2008 when it co-hosted with Switzerland, and even then it bowed out in the group stage. Prior to that the Austrians’ last major tournament was the 1998 World Cup in France, and they haven’t made it out of the group stage at a big competition since the 1982 World Cup. But this Austrian side is riding high, coming off a stellar qualifying campaign, and led by a coach who has managed to get the very best out of a talented group of players.

Goalkeepers: Robert Almer (Austria Vienna), Heinz Lindner (Eintracht Frankfurt), Ramazan Ozcan (Ingolstadt).
Defenders: Aleksandar Dragovic (Dinamo Kiev), Christian Fuchs (Leicester City), Gyorgy Garics (Darmstadt), Martin Hinteregger (Borussia Monchengladbach), Florian Klein (Stuttgart), Sebastian Prodl (Watford), Markus Suttner (Ingolstadt), Kevin Wimmer (Tottenham).
Midfielders: David Alaba (Bayern Munich), Marko Arnautovic (Stoke City), Julian Baumgartlinger (Mainz), Martin Harnik (Stuttgart), Stefan Ilsanker (Leipzig), Jakob Jantscher (Luzern), Zlatko Junuzovic (Werder Bremen), Marcel Sabitzer (Leipzig), Alessandro Schopf (Schalke).
Forwards: Lukas Hinterseer (Ingolstadt), Rubin Okotie (1860 Munich), Marc Janko (Basel).

Marcel Koller earned over 50 caps for Switzerland during his career, and played for his country under then-Swiss national team coach Roy Hodgson at Euro ’96 in England. After retiring he went in coaching, overseeing clubs in Switzerland and Germany. He took a two-year sabbatical before being appointed national team manager in 2011 after Austria failed to qualify for Euro 2012. The Austrians didn’t make it to the World Cup in 2014, but Koller led his adopted homeland through a successful qualifying campaign, helping it quality for the European Championship for the first time after co-hosting the event in 2008.

4-2-3-1: (GK) Almer – (D) Fuchs, Prodl, Dragovic, Klein – (M) Alaba, Baumgartlinger – (M) Arnautovic, Junuzovic, Harnik – (F) Janko

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June 14: vs. Hungary in Bordeaux
June 18: vs. Portugal in Paris
June 22 vs. Iceland in Saint-Denis

Austria cruised through the qualifiers, wining nine of 10 games (with one draw) to beat out Russia for first place by a comfortable eight-point gap, and finish 12 points better than third-place Sweden. Impressively, they hammered the Swedes 4-1 in Solna, and only twice trailed their opponents in a game over the course of their entire qualifying campaign.

Unity is the big one—Koller fielded an unchanged line-up for the majority of the qualifiers, a tactic that proved right on the money. Austria is tough team to break down, putting everybody behind the ball when not in possession—they gave up just five goals in the qualifiers. Organization, discipline and a high-pressing game are tied to a strong tactical identity that the Austrians have carved out for themselves under Koller.

Austria lets their opponents have the lion’s share of possession, which means they’re chasing and harrying, or defending for most of the game. It can be a tiring and taxing strategy on the players, to say nothing of the fact that opponents are allowed to dictate the pace of the match. Koller is pretty conservative, and doesn’t like to take many chances, which doesn’t bode well if and when they concede first and have to come from behind.

David Alaba: The reigning, five-time Austrian player of the year is regarded as one of the best left fullbacks in the world. But the Bayern Munich star, still only 23, can play in central defence and central midfield, and on either flank as a winger. An incredibly versatile player who scored four goals in the qualifiers.

Marko Arnautovic: He’s coming off a career season in which he scored 11 goals in the Premier League for Stoke City. Clever with the ball at his feet, he’s also a physical player who is not easily pushed around. Scored three times during the qualifiers.

Marc Janko: The FC Basel forward was Austria’s top goal scorer in the qualifiers with seven strikes—only five other players scored more often in the qualifying group stage. An imposing and physical player who has been a veteran of the national team for 10 years.

Can they duplicate what they did in the qualifiers? Austria was positively sensational, besting teams the calibre of Sweden and Russia in putting together a near flawless qualifying campaign. They were ruthless, and played without fear. If they can show that same kind of form and amazing consistency then chances are they’ll go far in France.

Austria is rightly being touted as a dark horse favourite. Aside from their outstanding form in the qualifiers, the Austrians boast a deep and quality roster of players who mostly compete at the highest level in the Premier League and Bundesliga. Getting out of the group should not be a problem, and it wouldn’t be a major surprise to see them make it to the quarterfinals, or even crack the final four.


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