“The Champions League is the competition everyone wants to be in.”
– Steven Gerrard
Part V: The Champions (League)
Note: This is Part V of an ongoing series. If this is your first time reading, you may want to begin with Part I: Introductions.
Last week was a bit disappointing for me. I’m still in the U.S., and streaming was even more difficult than normal. When I finally did manage to get a stream, it was inconsistent at best. I have just a few more weeks before I will finally be in the middle of the action, but until then, I’m afraid I’m just going to have to scramble to get what I can, when I can.
All that said, we saw some interesting results last week, even if the league as a whole was a bit light on goals. Graz kept the win alive against Wacker, despite a late run for the draw, 3-2; Red Bull Salzburg surged to the top of the table once again after defeating Mattersburg 2-0; Admira managed to pull in a win after a disappointing first match, defeating Hartberg 1-0 (sending Hartberg to the bottom of the table); and Wolfsberger upset FK Austria Wien with a single goal in the 72nd minute. Rapid Wien drew 1-1 with Altach, as did LASK and St. Pölten, 0-0.
We also had a little bit of action in international competitions, but before I go into that, I think it’s time I gave a little bit of a view of what happened last year. After all, the participants in these international competitions were determined by last year’s matches!
Last year, the final year of the ten team league, Red Bull Salzburg found themselves at the top of the table for the fifth year in a row – an impressive feat in any league. As such, they qualified for the UEFA Champions’ League. Also qualifying was runner-up Sturm Graz (it’s worth noting that, despite being runner-up in the league, they actually won the cross-league ÖFB Cup).
For those of you who don’t know, the Champions League and its lower-ranked counterpart, the Europa League, have many stages, in which different teams qualify or are eliminated and replaced by other teams. This system is generally based on the UEFA country coefficients ranking, which takes into account that country’s performance in past tournaments. Austria was ranked 15th, so the runner-up (Sturm Graz) entered the tournament on the League Path during the second qualifying round while the champion (RB Salzburg) entered on the Champions Path in the third qualifying round.
Sturm Graz was eliminated after losing 2-0 and 3-1 (5-1 aggregate) to AFC Ajax from the Netherlands. They were then sent to the Europa League, which we will discuss shortly.
Red Bull Salzburg, however, played their first match on Thursday against Shkëndija from the Republic of Macedonia, entering in the third qualifying round. They managed to pull out the win, going 3-0. They will play their second match on August 14th, but with a 3-0 head start in the aggregate (the score that really counts in the Champions League), their chances are good to advance to the next round.
Over in the Europa League, Austria sent Admira, LASK, and Rapid Wien. Admira and LASK came in at the Second Qualifying round. Admira was knocked out after losing by a 6-1 aggregate to CSKA Sofia from Bulgaria (not great), but LASK managed to move on after winning by a 6-1 aggregate (weird how that worked out) against Lillestrøm from Norway. This sent them on to the Third Qualifying round, where they were joined by Rapid Wien and, after losing in the Champions League, Sturm Graz.
All three teams now in the Europa league played on Thursday, and, unfortunately, all three lost. Sturm Graz lost 0-2 vs AEK Larnaca from Cyprus, Rapid Wien lost 1-2 vs Slovan Bratislava from Slovakia, and LASK lost 0-1 vs Beşiktaş from Turkey. But those scores aren’t so bad as to make the clubs panic. Rapid and LASK are both just one goal behind on aggregate, and Sturm could easily close the gap with a good day.
You may have heard about a problem that arose at the Sturm match today. I’m not really going to get into it here, not because I want to sweep it under the rug, but because I’m planning on doing a post on hooliganism in Austrian soccer soon. But just know that there was an incident in which a fan threw something (a cup or bottle, it’s unclear) at one of the refs, cutting his face and forcing UEFA to consider abandoning the match. Obviously, this is not a good look, and the Sturm organization has condemned it. But like I said, that may be something for this series to revisit on another day.
As far as expected results are concerned, it’s worth noting that an Austrian club has never won the Champions League or Europa League final. The closest they’ve come is a Europa League runner-up with Red Bull Salzburg in 1994. This Salzburg team is fairly stacked, so they have a chance to go pretty far in the tournament, but how they do overall has yet to be seen. Once they begin facing some of the harder hitters of the tournament, we’ll be able to see their true mettle.
Coming up this weekend in the league proper, we have another six matches. The matches and my picks are listed below (picks in bold):
Hartberg vs. Mettersberg
Altach vs. Wacker
Red Bull Salzburg vs. FK Austria Wien
Admira vs. LASK
Rapid Wien vs. Wolfsberger
St. Pölten vs. Sturm
Last week my picks didn’t go so well, so we’ll see how this week goes!
Next week I’m hoping to have a bit more on Austrian soccer history along with my picks. But until then, Auf Wiedersehen!
Update: You can continue this series with Part VI: Gimme a Break.