Austrian clubs prove their grit in Europe
On a recent Thursday night, Flanagan’s Irish Pub was filled to overflowing with green paraphernalia. But this was not St. Patrick’s Day: This crowd had gathered to watch the historic SK Rapid (green) – Aston Villa (burgundy) football match that would decide the entrant into the group stage of the Europa League. And that night, the Green and Whites made history: They became the first Austrian club to knock out an English club of European competition.
At Nikica Jelavic’s 76th-minute miracle strike, jubilation roared up from the crowd in the pub. And the ensuing final whistle from the referee echoed the euphoria from a recent July evening, when Rapid tested their mettle against another giant of the sport the English invented, FC Liverpool. On that night, though, the fans did not have to live the moment in a pub.
Walking through the tunnels in the Ernst Happel Stadium, listening to the drums pounding, it was clear how much football means to the fans of Rapid, Vienna’s leading football club. Some 50,000 people showed up for the pre-season exhibition match against Liverpool. On paper, this should have been a walk in the park for the visitors…
Then again, this is football.
The atmosphere of the stadium began to change the minute the game started, and once it began, it changed fast. Liverpool came out strong and looked to get on the scoreboard first. Dutch international Ryan Babel created an early chance, but couldn’t equal his flowing stride with a vigorous shot. After several more misfires for Liverpool, they could see that leaving Happel Stadium with a win would be tougher than imagined.
Seeing the prospect of a well-matched affair, the crowd grew louder, with fans pounding tom-toms and sending smoke bombs wafting into the air over the stands. At both ends football chants thundered in antiphonal chorus, especially from the Rapid faithful. On the pitch, the Viennese fought back thanks to a Erwin "Jimmy" Hoffer effort that was ruled offside, and another close-range shot "saved" by the Liverpool goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri. Steffan Hofmann also came close, missing a great chance on the stroke of the half-time whistle.
Scoreless at the break, it was a thrilling first half with chances at both ends, but a well-functioning defense from both sides as well.
In the locker room, Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez had the toughest job: figuring out how to change his line-up to score goals. With new signee Glen Johnson forced to sit out the match due to injury, long-time Liverpudlians Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher had to play a more defensive role. When he was done, the Spaniard made nine changes in all, which is only possible in friendly matches.
One of those substitutes was another Dutchman, Dirk Kuyt, who on 58 minutes, tackled Rapid’s Markus Heikkinen on the edge of the penalty area for a dangerous opportunity. Captain Hofmann stepped up and curled a fascinating free kick in for a 1-0 advantage. Such an impressive goal and well-taken free kick lifted the Rapid crowd screaming to their feet.
That goal slowed the pace of the game, making it difficult for Liverpool to come back; the defense was simply too strong for the Reds to penetrate.
With the game coming to a close, Benitez introduced last season’s talisman Javier Mascherano. The Argentine’s entry roused the visitors with Kuyt twice coming close to the goal, but not finishing in his usual fashion. In the final minutes, Benayoun came close one last time, but Liverpool could not find an equalizing goal.
In the end, Rapid cruised to a convincing victory that will surely be remembered in the annals of Vienna football. It was a remarkable win, giving Rapid an extra boost of confidence that was evident in their even more impressive toppling of Aston Villa in August.
Does such a victory – along with Europa League wins by Austria Vienna, Sturm Graz and Red Bull Salzburg – signal a new chapter in the story of Austrian football? This fall’s Europa League will be the stage for the high drama still to come.