Austria's wayward son
A cursory look at the table for Euro 2012 qualifying Group A suggests Austria are handily placed going into Friday's meeting with Belgium in Vienna, sitting in second spot behind favourites Germany. Yet while Didi Constantini's side have also played a game less than immediate rivals Belgium and Turkey, the next few days are likely to prove pivotal to their chances, with two matches against the Germans yet to come.
What is certain is that Austria will need their star player to be on top form - and on his best behaviour. Two-and-a-half years after making his debut for the national side as a teenager, Marko Arnautovic is in the position of having to prove himself all over again.
It wasn't meant to be this way. Signed by FC Twente as a 17-year-old, he made his debut in April 2007, five days before his 18th birthday. After Steve McClaren's arrival as coach, the tyro became a first-team fixture, and racked up 14 goals and seven assists in 2008-09. Arnautovic was special, blessed with verve, imagination and a deft touch which belied his rangy 6ft 3in frame.
Europe's finest hadn't been slow to notice, and Jose Mourinho's Inter won the race for his services in summer 2009. The move was eventually pushed through as a loan, after Arnautovic sustained a stress fracture of his right foot. It was widely expected to become permanent after a trial period, but such was his modest impact in Italy that it never materialised. Werder Bremen eventually took the plunge last June, paying an estimated €7.5 million for the forward after he made a mere three appearances for the Nerazzurri.
That season in stasis cost Arnautovic's international career dearly. He spent an 18-month stretch out of the senior squad between April 2009 and October 2010, being recalled by Constantini after a pair of scoring appearances for the Under-21s against Belarus and Scotland in August and September.
Unfortunately, while Arnautovic's playing status diminished, his self-regard seemingly did not. On his arrival in the Bundesliga, the now-21-year-old quickly rubbed some influential figures up the wrong way. Before the season even started, Werder sporting director Klaus Allofs publicly rebuked the youngster for his attitude. "We will give Marko a deadline," Allofs said in August. "If he does not understand that we can only exist if we work together then he does not have any future with Werder."
His spell in Serie A appeared to have changed him. "It's a difficult situation he's in now," Tim Roehn, who covers Werder for Germany's Bild newspaper, told ESPNsoccernet. "In his opinion, he's a 2010 Champions League winner, even if he didn't play. He even has 'Champions League winner 2010' printed on his football boots. He only wears them sometimes, but he did when he arrived and some of the other players in the team were laughing about it. He behaves like a megastar here in Bremen. He came from Inter and now he's in a relegation fight in Germany. I don't think this is what he is expected when he arrived."
Arnautovic actually started well, scoring twice on his home debut, a 4-2 win over Cologne in August, but he hasn't scored in the league since, despite netting in the ultimately futile 3-0 win over former club Inter in the Champions League in December. "I can't be satisfied with just two goals," he told a pre-match press conference this week. "I have to score more."
Certainly a goal or two more wouldn't go amiss for a Werder side that Roehn acknowledges is unaccustomed to doing the hard yards at the wrong end of the table. "He is like a younger Cristiano Ronaldo in some ways - he has potential and you can see that but, up to now, he's not been a team player. Things have changed in the last two weeks in Bremen. They have a sports psychologist working with them, and they're standing together, and working together. Arnautovic lost his place in the first XI because he doesn't seem to be a team player."
Recent substitute appearances for a reinvigorated Werder have been promising, so perhaps some time out of the team is doing Arnautovic good, just as it did for him at international level. He has scored four in four since his Austria recall, including three valuable strikes in qualifiers.
He has certainly grasped the importance of the collective for modest Austria. "We are like family," he told journalists in Vienna this week. "But if one leaves the circle, it's difficult."
Against the better resourced Belgians and Turks, Arnautovic knows the nation has to pull together. "[Qualification] is not just my dream but surely that of you journalists, too. You all want to be there with Austria in a major tournament. We haven't managed that since 1998. Now the door is open. If we stick together as in recent games, we will do it."
Arnautovic was in typically bullish form in front of the press, smirking that he envisaged being deployed on the left - as in October's 4-4 draw in Brussels - to face his "favourite enemy", Ajax's Toby Alderweireld. "I've known him for a long time," Arnautovic said. "I played against him in Holland at youth level and also in the first team. He's a very good defender, but when I am in good shape, it will be difficult for him."
The signs that Arnautovic is undergoing an epiphany and getting back on track are encouraging. "In my opinion, he has to realise that he's not at Inter, and not in Serie A anymore," Roehn says. "If he does realise that, trains hard and finds a way to be part of the team, he'll be a very successful player here. There's no other player in Bremen with the potential quality that he has."
Constantini will have his fingers crossed that Arnautovic's actions this week match his words.