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.

UEFA Champions League Preview: 11 places still up for grabs

ONLY FIVE teams have qualified so far for the last 16: Bayern, Bruges, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Napoli. So, there’s plenty to play for in matchday five and there could be a couple of high profile clubs finding their way to the Europa League.

Group A: Ajax – Liverpool; Napoli – Rangers.

Ajax, for all their European heritage, are almost out of the competition, although they will probably qualify for the Europa League. Liverpool, despite a stuttering start to the season in the Premier, thought they were finding their form when they beat Manchester City, but they had another setback and lost 1-0 against struggling Nottingham Forest. A draw for Liverpool in Amsterdam will send them through to the next stage. Napoli have already qualified, they are currently the most exciting team in Europe and their performances in Serie A and the Champions League have been impressive. Sadly, Rangers have looked out of their depth and their 7-1 humbling at home to Liverpool really summed up their experience this season.

Group B: Club Brugge – Porto; Atlético Madrid – Bayer Leverkusen

Bruges were one of the first teams to qualify for the knockout phase after winning three of their first four games. They are only the third Belgian team to reach the last 16 this century, Anderlecht (2000-01) and Gent (2015-16) were the others. Their opponents, Porto, need a win to keep some space between themselves and Atlético Madrid, but the second place in the group is likely to be decided by the meeting between these two teams on November 1 in Portugal. Leverkusen have been disappointing this season, both at home and in the Champions League, although they did beat Atlético in the last matchday.

Group C: Inter Milan – Viktoria Plzn; Barcelona – Bayern Munich

Barcelona went perilously close to elimination in the last group game against Inter, which ended 3-3. Inter know that a win against Plzn will put Barca out, regardless of how they face against group leaders Bayern. There has been much angst in Barcelona since the game with Inter, with concerns about their financial situation should they fail to qualify for the last 16. Barca have also lost ground in La Liga, despite the goals of Robert Lewandowski. Bayern, who have qualified, have been impressive in Europe, winning all four of their games and averaging three goals per game, while conceding just two goals.

Group D: Eintracht Frankfurt – Marseille; Tottenham – Sporting Lisbon

Anyone could still qualify from this group, but victories for Marseille and Tottenham could take both through. Frankfurt were unlucky to lose 3-2 at Tottenham, but they bounced back with a five-goal performance in the Bundesliga against Leverkusen. Marseille have been going well but were beaten by title rivals in France, Paris Saint-Germain. Spurs’ early season effervescence has lost a little of its fizz, with defeats against Arsenal and Manchester United, but they are still upbeat. They are particularly strong at home.

Group E: Red Bull Salzburg – Chelsea; Dinamo Zagreb – AC Milan.

This group remains quite open but the fifth matchday should start to sort things out. Chelsea, leaders of the group, are in good form under new boss Graham Potter, although their last two games have been disappointing with draws against Brentford and Manchester United. Salzburg, league leaders in Austria, faced second-placed Sturm Graz. They are still unbeaten in the Champions League group. AC Milan and Zagreb are still in the mix but a win for either will knock the loser out of contention. Milan are still chasing leaders Napoli at home and have lost just once in Serie A.

Group F: Celtic – Shakhtar Donetsk; RB Leipzig – Real Madrid.

Celtic are out of the competition, but still have feint hopes of finishing third and qualifying for the Europa League. Shakhtar, who should be too strong for them, would probably keep themselves in contention with a win in Glasgow. They recently beat big rivals Dynamo Kyiv in the Ukrainian Premier League, but everything is overshadowed by the war with Russia. RB Leipzig have turned their season around in recent weeks and have won five of their last six games. Their two wins against Celtic in the group have revitalised their Champions League campaign. Real Madrid will be a tough task as they are unbeaten in La Liga and recently beat Barcelona in El Clasico, followed by a 3-1 win against Sevilla.

Group G: Sevilla – FC Copenhagen; Borussia Dortmund – Manchester City

This round of matches will effectively be the group leadership decider and the Europa League qualifier. Dortmund host City with the top two places up for grabs. City were beaten for the first time this season when they went down 1-0 at Liverpool, but they returned to winning ways against Brighton. Liverpool prevented Erling Haaland from scoring, but the huge Norwegian will be keen to score against his old club. Dortmund, who came through two table-topping games with Bayern and Union with just one point to show for their efforts, know a win will secure their place in the last 16. Sevilla have picked up in the past few games and should be too good for a Copenhagen side who struggle to win games, although they did achieve a credible draw with City in their last Champions League fixture.

Group H: Benfica – Juventus; Paris Saint-Germain – Maccabi Haifa

Benfica have enjoyed their Champions League campaign so far and are within touching distance of the last 16. Juventus, by contrast, are almost out, although a win in Lisbon will delay the ignominy of an early exit. Juve were beaten 2-0 in their last group game in Haifa, but won the Turin derby afterwards and beat Emploi 4-0 at the weekend. Speculation is still rife about the future of coach Max Allegri. Benfica warmed up for this game with a big clash against Porto. PSG should win against Maccabi Haifa and followed up their 1-1 draw with Benfica with a 1-0 victory against old rivals Olympique Marseille. PSG may be distracted due to the continued talk of Kylian Mbappe moving in January and there are also rumours about Lionel Messi returning to Barcelona.