The European Championships has been increased to 24 teams this summer, allowing some of the smaller nations on the continent to build up tournament experience. Although the changes to the tournament have been criticised, this is one of the positives. Austria haven’t qualified for a tournament since the 1998 World Cup, while they have only participated in the European Championships on one occasion. This was in 2008, when they hosted the tournament on a joint basis with Switzerland. Given their inexperienced history, Austria go into Euro 2016 with no pressure on them, but they could surprise many as their squad at the moment is the best that we have seen from them in recent years.
During the qualification campaign, Austria won their group easily, winning nine and drawing one of their ten matches. They had to face both Russia and Sweden, both of whom are experienced in qualifying for tournaments, which will have given the Austrian players confidence that they can do well this summer. The highlight from their qualification period was their emphatic 4-1 win in Sweden, as they displayed they could dominate in both halves of the pitch. Austria may lack the multitude of stars of the bigger nations, but their togetherness and the hard-working nature of the squad is an asset that few other countries have.
Austria have been considered underachievers in the past, but they have put together their best side since the 1970s, when they qualified for back-to-back World Cups. Many expected them to struggle to finish above Sweden and Russia over qualification, but they did so with ease. Austria employ a high pressing strategy, with David Alaba being key to the approach playing in the centre of midfield rather than his usual position at Bayern on the left of defence. Operating in the middle of the park suits him well and he is the star of the side, given his experience at the top of the European game with the Bavarian behemoths.
Austria are strong at the back, which is reflected by their record over the last two years, conceding just five times over the ten qualification matches. The defence is filled with experienced players who are well organised by Marcel Kollar. The central defensive partnership is likely to be Aleksandar Dragovic and Sebastian Prodl, but the form of Kevin Wimmer at Tottenham could well see him break into the side into the summer. Leicester City’s Christian Fuchs captains the side and is one of Austria’s main creators down the left wing. He could be coming into the tournament on the back of one of the most extraordinary achievements in football if Leicester win the league and he will be hoping his country can also cause a few shocks. If he can translate the kind of understated but nonetheless brilliant club form to the international stage, he could help Austria progress further than many expect.
Austria like to transition the ball quickly through the midfield, giving their attacking line as many chances as possible. David Alaba, Zlatko Junuzovic and Julian Baumgartlinger are likely to be the players chosen to play in the midfield, with Austria playing a 4-3-3 on most occasions. They all play in the Bundesliga, and are good passers of the ball, while they are also required to press heavily to win the ball high up the pitch. Alaba is central to this approach, as he has a lot of energy and at the age of 23, he has the legs to do this across the entire tournament.
The forward line is normally Martin Harnik, Marc Janko and Marko Arnautovic, who are all capable of scoring goals in International football. The latter is well known to English fans as he plays for Stoke City and has starred this season, impressing with a fine combination of skill and desire, and is not averse from bagging the odd spectacular strike. He has the ability to do incredible things on the football pitch and can create a moment of magic out of nothing, while he has added work rate to his game since coming to England, which will be important this summer. The other two are more prolific for Austria, with Janko having a phenomenal record of around a goal every other game. They work together well as a trio, and they should score goals, especially against the opposition they have in the group stages.
They have been drawn in an all European group with Portugal, Hungary and Iceland. Cristiano Ronaldo and his troops are the only side with a lot of tournament experience, but they have been poor overall recently; aside from an impressive 2-1 win over Belgium, and are certainly there to be beaten. Meanwhile, Hungary and Iceland have both done very well to qualify, but they don’t have the quality in depth to challenge seriously this summer. Austria should go in with no fear and use their success against both Russia and Sweden as motivation to win this group. If they do, then anything can happen in the knock-out stages, as Greece showed in 2004.
Austria have a bright future ahead of them, as a lot of good players are coming through in both Germany and their own domestic league. Martin Hinteregger, Kevin Wimmer, Marcel Sabitzer, Alessandro Schopf, Louis Schaub, Konrad Laimer and Michael Gregoritsch are all coming through, but this tournament will come too soon for some of these. They are a side that could be dark horses this summer, and their high energy, pressing game will make them difficult opponents for even the biggest nations in France.
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