Austria tagged as dark horses

David Alaba (File)
David Alaba (File)

Vienna - Despite what a few sceptics might say, Austria's first ever qualification for a European Championship is not down to UEFA's decision to enlarge the tournament from 16 to 24 teams in 2016.

With nine wins and a draw, the team based around captain Christian Fuchs and playmaker David Alaba comfortably topped a group that also included Russia and Sweden. Only England enjoyed a better qualifying campaign with the maximum 30 points.

Austria appeared at Euro 2008 as a co-host with Switzerland but hadn't qualified for a finals tournament since the 1998 World Cup.

Coach Marcel Koller took over after Austria missed out on Euro 2012 but refrained from overhauling the team. Eight players in the starting lineup for the decisive Euro 2016 qualifier away to Sweden in September were also regulars four years ago.

It's one of the pillars of the Swiss coach's philosophy. He prefers to build a team out of a fixed group of players, rather than constantly adding new names or trying out different playing styles.

The formula is clearly working, as Austria has climbed in the FIFA ranking from 77th when Koller took over four years ago to 10th at the end of 2015, making the team a dark horse in France next year.

Here is a look at three of Austria's key players and its coach, Koller:

ROBERT ALMER

No regular at German second division side Duesseldorf at the time, the goalkeeper made a surprise debut in Austria's first match under coach Marcel Koller in 2011. He has developed into a reliable stopper for the team thanks to his no-nonsense playing style, and set an all-time national record by not conceding for 603 straight minutes during Euro 2016 qualifying.

DAVID ALABA

Usually a left-back at Bayern Munich, Alaba is the heart and soul of the national team. Born to a Philippine mother and a Nigerian father, the playmaker dictates the pace of the game and is first in the pecking order to take free kicks and penalties. Gives Austria an edge without being irreplaceable — the star was out with injuries both times Austria beat Russia in qualifying.

MARC JANKO

The 6-foot-5 tall Basel player has always been coach Koller's undoubted first-choice striker, even during a two-year spell where he hardly played for his then club Trabzonspor. Has repaid his coach with seven goals in Euro 2016 qualifying, most notably his spectacular overhead bicycle kick for a 1-0 win in Moscow. The son of the 1968 Olympic javelin bronze medalist, Eva Janko, he is eager to add to his tally of 25 goals in 50 international games.

COACH: MARCEL KOLLER

Greeted with skepticism as he had been without a job for 25 months when appointed in 2011, the Swiss coach has masterminded Austria's revival. Sticking with an almost unchanged squad for four years, he has used his skills as a man manager to build a solid team with a strong belief that it can beat every opponent - which it nearly did in the past two years.

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England 92/4 (28 ov)
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England 92/4 (28 ov)
Pakistan 326
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