David Alaba leads dynamic Austria past Montenegro
PODGORICA, Montenegro -- Three thoughts from Austria's dramatic, last-minute 3-2 victory over Montenegro in Euro 2016 qualifying.
1. This team bucks Austria's stodgy image
Austria have not been known for providing a thrill a minute in recent times, but Marcel Koller's team is a far cry from the predecessors that have toiled for the past two decades. They had already earned a place at Euro 2016 with two games to spare -- the first time they had come through the qualifying stages for a major tournament since 1998 -- before this 3-2 win in Podgorica, and had dropped only two points in a group containing Sweden and Russia. Austria had beaten the former 4-1 on their home turf last month, a result that finally turned heads to a richly promising team that seems to have appeared out of the blue. Montenegro, still with an outside chance of qualifying, would provide another useful test as Austria looked to battle-harden themselves further before next summer.
It was not a night to rush to judgment on Austria, who may not choose this open of an approach in France. But this is an entertaining side, prompted incessantly by the sublime talent of David Alaba, while luxuriating in a clever, interchanging attacking midfield three of Martin Harnik, Zlatko Junuzovic and Marko Arnautovic. It was from a lovely bit of skill and low ball from the right by Harnik that their striker, Marc Janko, tapped in for the equaliser after 55 minutes. And it was Arnautovic, a lavish but occasionally wayward talent who is now finding form at Stoke, who slalomed along the edge of the penalty area before arrowing in their second equaliser nine minutes from time.
Arnautovic had already missed two presentable chances, and when substitute Marcel Sabitzer hit the post shortly before the end it appeared that an enjoyable game would end level. But Sabitzer thundered in an injury-time winner that his side's creativity and willingness to put men ahead of the ball deserved.
It was a willingness that proved their undoing at times; Montenegro's mobility on the break sometimes left exposed a defence whose lack of pace may be punished next summer. Austria had been miserly in their previous eight games but could have conceded more here.
Alaba is not Austria's only player of genuine quality. It is notable that, of the 12 Austrians ever to have played in the Premier League, four of them are currently doing so (Arnautovic is joined by Leicester's Christian Fuchs, Tottenham's Kevin Wimmer and Watford's Sebastian Prodl in the squad). Perhaps it is too soon to call this a golden generation, but Austrian football is on an upward curve -- and bucking the stodgy image of the past.
2. David Alaba sets the tone for Austria
A lack of world-class players has been among the reasons for Austria's barren record, but they have one now and his style sets the tone for Koller's team. Alaba won his 40th cap here, almost six years to the day since his international debut, and brings the relentless pressing, passing and movement of Bayern Munich to a side that appears intentionally moulded to his habits.
Alaba was everywhere at the Stadion pod Goricom, starting in what was notionally a deep midfield pair with Mainz's Julian Baumgartlinger. He was in constant motion, joining the front four to press Montenegro's defence when in possession and constantly looking for the ball when it had been won back; his awareness making it easier for teammates to take good positions around him.
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A sequence on either side of the half-hour mark spoke volumes. One moment Alaba was his team's last man in defence, timing his challenge on Fatos Beciraj perfectly after the left winger had broken clear. The next he was denied by the Montenegro goalkeeper, Vukasin Poleksic, who smothered at his feet as he attempted to break through on the edge of the six-yard box.
One first-time pass to open up space for Junuzovic succeeded in wrong-footing half of the Montenegrin team. After half-time, as Austria stepped up the pressure, there was a 35-yard free-kick that dropped just over the crossbar and a well-timed run onto a Fuchs cutback that resulted in a shot placed wide.
It is frightening to think that Alaba, who was effectively a fifth attacker for his team in the second period, is only 23. But it is encouraging news for Austria to have a thrilling talent that they might just be able to build a team around for the next decade. It should not be taken as a criticism to say that, at this stage, they would be a very different side without him.
3. Montenegro claw back with some pride
Montenegro would still be in with a small chance of qualification had their match here with Russia not been abandoned due to crowd trouble in March, meaning their opponents were awarded 3-0 a game that was goalless when the players came off. With nets separating supporters from the pitch this time, Montenegro gave it their best shot against the Austrians at a much better-behaved Stadion pod Goricom, which had been closed for their previous home game against Liechtenstein.
The prematch news that the Inter Milan forward Stevan Jovetic would not be fit to start the game boded ill, but Branko Brnovic's team produced an intelligent counterattacking display, committing men forward on the break and regularly exposing a team that had conceded just three times in these qualifiers before arriving here.
Their captain and talisman, Mirko Vucinic, led the line superbly and deserved the close-range goal that broke the deadlock; their left-winger, Beciraj, plays in relative obscurity for the Belarusian side Dinamo Minsk, but was a constant threat and scored the second with a neat piece of control and a crisp finish from the edge of the area.
Vucinic nearly won the game late on with a far-post header that Austria goalkeeper Robert Almer palmed away, before being sent off at the death, and things worsened when Sabitzer's winner confirmed that they will not be playing in France next summer. But their performance, on and off the pitch, did at least contribute positively to a week that, after Albania's meeting with Serbia passed peacefully on Thursday, saw Balkan football make some headlines for the right reasons.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.