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Monday 5 December 2016

Jury is out on Austria

Skipper Baumgartlinger keen to move on from Euros and focus on Irish

Austria captain Julian Baumgartlinger in action against Ireland’s James McCarthy during the 2014 World Cup qualifier in Vienna back in September 2013
Austria captain Julian Baumgartlinger in action against Ireland’s James McCarthy during the 2014 World Cup qualifier in Vienna back in September 2013
The Austrian squad listen to a team-talk from manager Marcel Koller at the BSFZ Arena in the Maria Enzersdorf district ahead of this evening’s World Cup qualifier against Ireland in Vienna

After their month in France last summer, Ireland's players came home to a glow of satisfaction and the warmth of recognition.

Only this week, Jeff ­Hendrick said that his face is now recognised even more on the streets of Dublin, on the back of his efforts in Euro 2016. "I get spotted a lot more now when I'm out, even with my friends," he claimed.

The men from Austria's national team were not quite pelted with rotten tomatoes and booed when they returned home after a dismal showing at Euro 2016, but they certainly were not hailed.

And that current crop are ready for more brickbats should they fail at home to Ireland this evening, with the route to Russia 2018 almost certainly closed off for the Austrians should they lose.

It's an experience that some of this Irish squad can relate to: in 2012 they qualified for a major finals, on the back of a decent qualifying campaign and an impressive run of form in friendlies (we even won a trophy, the greatly-missed Carling Cup) but then flopped, really flopped, on the big stage at the Euros.

Austria did the same: 12 months ago their team were national heroes, sparing themselves the pain of the play-offs by qualifying automatically from a rather ordinary group, their first time to qualify for the European Championship finals as such (Austria did compete at Euro 2008 but they'd qualified automatically as joint hosts).

They went to France with more than a chance, and no less a figure than Didi Hamman tipped them as dark horses to win the tournament. That was shot down in their first game, Austria losing 2-0 to neighbours Hungary.

A 0-0 draw with Portugal restored pride but hopes came crashing down again in the last group game, a 2-1 loss to Iceland, and before they knew it, Euro 2016 was over for Austria.

So just how did their golden generation turn into flops in the space of a week?

How come a team which conceded just five games in qualification for Euro 2016 have already leaked in six goals in three World Cup games?

Austrian football has been beset by infighting and the blame game ever since. The nation has mulled over it for months now, especially as the poor form from France ate into their World Cup campaign, form which leaves them with only four points to date and a real need to beat Ireland this evening to stay in contention.

Their captain, Julian Baumgartlinger, was not too keen to look back on the summer of French farce.

"We have analysed the tournament, we know what went wrong, that's in the past, what is important is right now," says Baumgartlinger, likely to square up to Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter in midfield tonight.

Problem

"The beginning of the qualification was quite good and we got results. We did have chances at the Euros but we weren't as successful as we wanted to be.

"We changed a few things and now we have to work as hard as before to get results. The Euros is in the past so we must move on."

The problem for coach Marcel Koller, who celebrated his 56th birthday yesterday, is that things haven't moved on and the side is still stuck in a rut.

Ireland are beset by injury problems and an Irish side containing Shane Long, James McCarthy and Stephen Ward would be better equipped to win here than the side which Martin O'Neill has to field in Vienna. But while Austria have their injury problems too, their boss is still trying to work out how to fix their form.

"After European qualification, everyone suggested we were going to be really successful at the Euros. Even there, every game was very close, so it can go either way," says Koller.

"We know how hard it is, we know what we have to work on, we have to stop conceding goals and improve our attacking situations.

"We have to think positive and that we can come back. We won, we drew and lost but we still think it will be a positive experience for us," he says of the World Cup qualifying group to date.

On paper, this game looks like a must-win game for Austria, like their June battle with Iceland, so Koller tries to play that down.

"We want to win, that's for sure, we are going to do everything we can to win. The stadium will be sold out," he says. "I think it's going to be a really close game, Ireland have had a good start to the qualification round, last time we played in the World Cup qualification round it was a close game as well.

"Ireland will try to take points from us so we will do everything to stop them."

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