UEFA EURO 2024: 

The Austria Preview

The Other Bundesliga's Tom Middler takes a look at Ralf Rangnick's Austria troupe, as they prepare to head north to Germany for another appearance at the EUROs. After finally getting some long-awaited wins under their belts at EURO 2020, and giving Italy a scare in the knock-outs for good measure, what can Austria hope for this time around?

It’s not every club season that ends with Austrian players at both the participating sides in the UEFA Champions League Final. Marcel Sabitzer played his socks off for Borussia Dortmund throughout the Black & Yellows’ UCL run, and became only the second Austrian to ever appear in UEFA’s showpiece finale, whereas David Alaba (naturally the other Austrian to have made an appearance) was sidelined with an all too familiar ACL injury earlier on in his Real Madrid team’s inexorable drive towards yet another European crown - in fact, this one was already Alaba’s fourth.

Whilst Austria’s defensive talisman sadly won’t be fit enough to take to the pitch at UEFA EURO 2024 he will be a staff member in Germany this summer, and although a crestfallen Sabi sat out Austria’s final friendly as he gathered his emotions following the defeat at Wembley in which he performed so well, he insisted that there was “no need to worry” about his preparedness for Austria’s Group D games.

On to those games, then. There’s no doubt that Ralf Rangnick has pushed this Austria team forward during his tenure, but unfortunately our Austria preview has to be framed by the injuries. Keeper Alex Schlager - who worked so hard to claim the nation’s number one spot for himself - suffered a knee injury at the business end of Salzburg’s difficult campaign, as he won Bundesliga Goalkeeper of the Season in Austria’s domestic league. Bröndby’s loanee keeper Patrick Pentz almost led his team to the title in Denmark, and he will surely step in between the sticks before Niki Hedl or Heinz Lindner get given a chance, but at least Pentz has recent experience of playing very well indeed against France...

Above: The Other Bundesliga's Tom & Simon will be in Germany to soak up as much of the EUROs as possible!

We’ve already mentioned Alaba’s unfortunate ausfall in defence, yet - and we don’t say this lightly - the injury to midfielder Xaver Schlager (another knee issue cruelly late in the season) might just be an even bigger blow to the Red, White & Reds. Schlager has been nothing less than a beast at Leipzig and in the national side in recent times, shoring up the centre of the midfield with relentless running and hassling, and you feel that his work-rate and stubbornness made him a key component of the Rangnick trademarks of pressing, ball recovery and forward transitional play which Austria are now aiming for.

Will it take two players to replace him? It might. Nicolas Seiwald is certainly one option, and although we love his vision and passing abilities in the defensive midfield, he’s not a like-for-like switch for his Leipzig teammate, and perhaps Konrad Laimer will have to drop in alongside, although that could also rob Austria of some his considerable qualities in the wider areas and further forward. Hoffenheim’s Florian Grillitsch is another potential gap-filler in this area in what might just be RR’s most pressing issue before the opening game.

At the back, Austria will likely have plenty to keep themselves busy with France, Poland and the Netherlands in the same group. The boss has opted for a back four in all of the most recent friendly matches, and with dependable (if unspectacular) options throughout the squad, finding the right combination of centre backs and full backs should be simple enough, although Patrick Wimmer may have complicated matters a little - in a good way - by putting in an excellent display as a offensively-oriented left back, and even grabbing his first national team goal in the win over Serbia in the team’s farewell party at the Ernst Happel Stadion. A shout-out too, must go to SK Rapid’s young prodigy Leo Querfeld, who looked well beyond his 20 years young after coming on at centre back in that friendly. A starter? Unlikely. A useful addition to the team? Very much so, it seems.

Further forward, it’s not only the mercurial Marcel Sabitzer who can produce the kind of passes into the final third which could turn games in Austria’s favour, but Christoph Baumgartner does that for fun as well, and he’s also on a magnificent run for Das Team, having scored in five straight games, something which no Austrian managed since Hans Krankl in 1976! The long-range shooting technique of that particular duo could be a weapon if Austria are coming up against stubborn back lines in Group D. Picking out the bottom corner sometimes looks as easy as picking out a routine pass for those two, but hopefully the team’s strikers can pull their weight, too...

Above: A 2-0 win over Germany was just one of Austria's confidence-boosting 6 wins from 7 games prior to the EUROs.

Yes, Marko Arnautovic is still kicking footballs alongside his main career as a gin distiller, and Austria’s record cap holder (112) has way more experience of bagging goals for his country than anyone else in the squad, so he’s certainly going to be called upon. Beside him, perhaps Michael Gregoritsch is the low-key danger man of Austria, and although he comes in with little fanfare, he’s got a knack of scoring important goals, and as a bonus his industriousness in the box often gives his teammates a chance to make something happen. We can’t finish looking at the forwards without a mention for Hartberg’s Max Entrup. The 26-year-old was playing for FC Marchfeld in Austria’s lowly third-tier just over a year ago, and after surprising everyone with a late breakout season at the Bundesliga minnows, he’s not only been called up, but also scored for Austria in the 6-1 mauling of Turkey in March. If he even gets onto the pitch in Germany, it will be a magnificent, memorable moment.

People tend to assume that Austria will finish third in the group behind France and the Netherlands, but writing off Poland should be done at our own peril, as they have a number of good players in the team even if they do tend to fall a bit flat at tournaments, and needed the play-off route to book their ticket to Germany. It’s true, a lot will ride on that crunch game, but Austria also need to make sure they’re in gear in the opener against France, and in the third game against the Dutch team. Beating Poland alone, if that even is to happen, will not guarantee Austria a passage to the knock-outs in third place.

One of the low points of a generally positive EURO 2020 was a limp 2-0 defeat to the team in orange, as Austria appeared resigned to losing against the “bigger team.” That must not be the case this time, and it will not be the case under Ralf Rangnick, he’s simply not that kind of coach. Yet if Austria can’t grab a point off France in their first game for example, keeping the scoreline close could prove crucial in the qualification battle. An early drubbing would already put the “3rd placed lucky loser” berth in serious jeopardy, and so Austria must realistically aim to get at least one statement result against the heavyweights in the group, and also back that up with a good performance under pressure against the Poles. Second place would be a shock, but with a place in the top two as the target, the chances of falling short and still getting to the next round is that bit greater. If Austria can get to the knock-outs, the draw is likely to be brutal, but the tournament will have been a success, and who knows what Austria could do on any given night. 

We can dare to dream, and we can be sure that Ralf Rangnick has made his team believe that a starring role for Austria in Germany is very much possible this summer. Bring it on!

Words: Tom Middler 
Photos: The Other Bundesliga