Austria: Red Bull Salzburg on course for 10th consecutive title

WITH ONE game to go in the regular Austrian Bundesliga programme, four of the six places have been decided for the Championship play-off stage. Three clubs are vying for the last two spots: Austria Klagenfurt, Austria Wien and WSG Tirol. At the top of the table, Red Bull Salzburg have cemented their customary seat at the table and sit nine points clear of Sturm Graz, the only Austrian team to beat the champions this season.

Salzburg have won 17 of their 21 games and have lost just once, a 2-1 defeat in Graz. Similarly, they were beaten by Graz in the quarter-finals of the Austrian Cup. Graz face LASK in the semi-final on April 5, the other semi is between Rapid Wien and SV Ried. So, for only the second time in the past 10 years, Red Bull Salzburg will not be winning the double in Austria.

Salzburg’s hold on Austrian football shows little sign of abating, although the gap between the top two as they reach the end of the first stage is less than last season. Salzburg had a substantial margin to take into the Championship round in 2021-22, but the gap may be as little as five points this season. In the past three years, Salzburg’s title winning margin has ranged from 12 to 15 points. As in 2022, their nearest challengers should be Sturm Graz.

The crowds in Austria are at a 10-year high, the average in the Bundesliga is currently 7,226 compared to 5,052 in the regular season in 2021-22. Rapid are the biggest attraction with attendances of 18,300 while Sturm (12,500), Salzburg (11,500) and Austria Wien (10,800) are also in five figures. The Wien derby takes place on March 19, the last game for both clubs in the initial programme, which will mean another healthy gate.

Salzburg, as ever, have some bright young players who are attracting the attention of clubs in Germany and England. Slovenian Benjamin Šeško is just 19 but his performances have already marked him as a star of the future. The statistics underline the impact he has made – a goal involvement every 89 minutes and 0.76 goals per 90 minutes. He also has a remarkable physical presence. Another youngster, the 20 year-old Croatian Luka Sučić, is being touted as “the new Modric”, such is the impression he has made so far. And then there’s 18 year-old Dijon Kameri, who was nurtured from within the club’s youth system, a midfielder of enormous promise according to Salzburg watchers.

RB Salzburg’s so-called “player factory” not only ranks among the top three sources for “big five” league clubs, but also ensures that the club itself has the youngest average age (22.4 years) among Austrian Bundesliga clubs. They also have the highest percentage of foreign players (63.7%) in their squad. Salzburg have developed a strategy for recruiting youngsters in the mid-to-late teens and then selling them for handsome profits. Others are following this approach, but Salzburg’s big advantage is their ownership and the multi-club model in which they operate.

Austrian teams failed to make much progress in Europe this season. Salzburg were third in their Champions League group behind Chelsea and AC Milan and then lost to Roma in the Europa League. Sturm Graz were knocked out of the Champions League before the group phase and in the Europa League finished fourth in their group. Austria Wien were thrashed by Fenerbahce in the Europa play-off round and were bottom of their Conference group. Rapid Wien were beaten by Liechtenstein’s Vaduz of all people in the Conference play-offs.

Not many people would bet against Salzburg winning their 10th consecutive title this season. They have the resources and the strategy to ensure their squad keeps churning-out talented young players. Their transfer spend over the past 10 years has totalled € 167 million and their net market activity is a positive of € 373 million, which dwarfs the rest of the Bundesliga and is bettered only by Benfica, Ajax and Porto in Europe. This might not make them especially popular in their home market and doesn’t speak well for the overall competiveness of Austrian domestic football, but nobody can deny that they have created a model that is very effective.

7 days in football: This week’s big action

THE FA Cup reaches the last 16 with the eight ties being played in midweek, while domestic league title races heat up across Europe, including the Premier and Championship in England and the Bundesliga.

Monday February 27

A relatively quiet start to the week with games in Italy, Portugal, Spain and Portugal, but few standouts. Lazio versus Sampdoria looks the best bet for something interesting as the Roman side look to challenge for a Champions League place.

Tuesday February 28

In Italy, it’s the Turin derby between Juventus and Torino. The FA Cup fifth round is being played in midweek this season with Bristol City hosting Manchester City and Stoke City at home to Brighton, who must fancy a trip to Wembley. Fulham are at home to Leeds United and Leicester City welcome Blackburn Rovers. The Championship has a cracker this evening in the form of Luton Town (6th) versus Millwall (5th) at Kenilworth Road.

Wednesday March 1

Premier League leaders Arsenal play Everton at the Emirates, a vital game for both clubs. Arsenal are still two points ahead of Manchester City at the top, but Everton are back in the danger zone after their home defeat against Leeds United. Stuttering Liverpool are at home to Wolves. More FA Cup action sees EFL Cup winners Manchester United hosting West Ham United and Tottenham travelling to Sheffield United in a repeat of the 1901 FA Cup final (!). Elsewhere, Southampton are at home to Grimsby Town and Burnley play Fleetwood at Turf Moor. Incidentally, there is a house close to Fleetwood’s stadium entrance called Turf Moor, no doubt an exiled Burnley fan’s home!

Thursday March 2

In the Copa del Rey, Real Madrid versus Barcelona is the tie of the round. Real last won the trophy in 2014 and Barca’s most recent victory in the competition was 2021. The two teams meet again on March 19 in the league at the Camp Nou. The Copa Libertadores is underway and there’s  a curious tie in the form of Always Ready of La Paz in Bolivia (La Banda Roja) against Magallanes of San Bernandino in Santiago. Magallanes, who won Primeira B in Chile last year, also won the Copa Chile to qualify for the Libertadores.

Friday March 3

An interesting game this evening; Irish Cup quarter-final between Harland & Wolff Welders and Larne. The Welders are from Belfast and play at the [Danny] Blanchflower Stadium. They are in the second tier of Northern Ireland’s football structure. They’ve beaten two top flight sides on their way to the last eight, Newry and Glenavon. In the Bundesliga, title chasing Borussia Dortmund play fourth-placed RB Leipzig with BVB looking to put pressure on top-placed FC Bayern. Italian leaders Napoli have a tough home game against Lazio.

Saturday March 4

The Premier title race hots up with Arsenal at home to Bournemouth and Manchester City meeting Newcastle United at the Etihad. In the Championship, there’s two top clashes, Millwall versus Norwich City and Blackburn Rovers versus Sheffield United. 

Sunday March 5

In Austria, it’s old money versus new when Rapid Vienna play Red Bull Salzburg in the capital. Salzburg, of course, are top of the table, while Rapid are in fourth. Over in Catalonia, La Liga leaders Barcelona will be hoping to bounce back from their surprise defeat against Almeria when they welcome struggling Valencia to the Camp Nou. Champions League-chasing Roma are at home to hit and miss Juventus, who are languishing in eighth place in Serie A. It’s the Women’s League Cup final in England, Chelsea versus Arsenal at Crystal Palace. Chelsea have now featured in fourth consecutive finals and last won the trophy in 2021. The Premier game of the day is Liverpool versus Manchester United, which may revitalise passions at subdued Anfield.

FA Trophy and FA Vase 

The quarter-finals in England’s major non-league competitions are on the horizon. The games will be played on March 11.

FA Trophy: York v Altrincham; Gateshead v Farsley Celtic; Maidstone v Barnet; Aldershot Town v Halifax.

FA Vase: Congleton v Bury AFC; West Didsbury & Chorlton v Ascot; Newport Pagnell (the holders) v Atherstone; Peacehaven v Corsham.