Andrew Smith: The Austrian challenge facing Celtic and Rangers

Salzburg�s fans celebrate after scoring during the UEFA Euro League. Pic: Robert Michael/AFP/Getty Images
Salzburg�s fans celebrate after scoring during the UEFA Euro League. Pic: Robert Michael/AFP/Getty Images
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Had Scotland’s two European representatives been up against Austrian opponents a decade ago, the backdrop would have been very different to the one that has formed around the Europa League group games that will see FC Salzburg host Celtic as Rangers entertain Rapid Vienna on Thursday.

Austria currently sit 10th in Uefa’s rankings; Scotland are 21st. In 2008, that situation was reversed – Scotland lying 10th as Austria bumped along in 20th place. The significance to events of that year on the turnaround cannot be overstated. The 2007-08 season proved the last in which the wings given to Salzburg courtesy of their bankrolling by Red Bull didn’t seriously clip those of the country’s long-regarded footballing powerhouse, Rapid Vienna.

Rapid captured their 32nd league title a decade ago, edging out a Salzburg who the previous season had earned only their fourth championship, and first under the Red Bull name.

Since then Rapid have been runners-up five times to a Salzburg that have hoovered up eight of the 10 titles contested – the past five of these consecutively. Moreover, they have made inroads in Europe of the sort that have allowed Austrian football to climb the Uefa rankings. Meanwhile, appearances in the Euro finals of 2008 and 2016 by a national side previously in the wilderness have further strengthened the feeling of Austria as a country on the rise.

They were certainly that when Rapid’s most concerted period of dominance came during the 1950s – Austria achieving third place in the 1954 World Cup – and 1960s. They have had further flurries of domestic dominance and also made inroads in Europe. Rapid were beaten by Everton in the 1985 European Cup-Winners’ Cup final following nefarious activities that allowed them to avoid elimination by Celtic, and in 1996 they reached the final again, losing on this occasion to Paris Saint-Germain.

Now, they and all their fellow Austrian clubs appear as if they have been reduced to permanent also-ran status when ranged against Salzburg. In all respects, that is, except when it comes to attracting a following, with Rapid’s average attendance of 18,000 last season almost twice that of their monied untouchables.

Salzburg’s dominance is such that their extra-time loss to Sturm Graz in May’s national cup final was the first domestic honour in 10 that had slipped from their grasp. But the Red Bull influence forever causes the transformation of the club to be treated with a degree of sneering and cynicism. When the global drinks brand bought the club formerly named Austria Salzburg in 2005 they made plain their intentions to create a franchise. They changed the name, club colours and attempted to wipe their entire history that included an appearance in the 1994 Uefa Cup final. The intention was to put Red Bull front and centre and when the company then did the same with German amateur club Leipzig four years later and started to cross-match both clubs, their methods to make a mark in football became questioned universally.

The fact that Celtic share Group B with both Salzburg and RB Leipzig still jars with many. Uefa allowed the pair to compete in the Europa League last season after Red Bull altered their ownership structure at Salzburg by becoming merely the club’s “main sponsors”. They dropped the RB as a prefix to Salzburg, but the exact nature of the links between the pair remain blurred to most outsiders. Certainly, they are not as obviously a feeder club to German Bundesliga side Leipzig they once appeared to be. In the early part of this decade, Salzburg seemed an incubator for young talent that would find its way to Leipzig, as Naby Keita did in 2016. In 2012 Ralf Rangnick was sporting director of both clubs, no less.

The cross-matching between the two teams wasn’t lost on the support of Borussia Dortmund, when they met Salzburg in the last 16 of the Europa League. Many Dortmund fans, scornful of Red Bull’s cash injections, boycotted the tie as they decried Salzburg and Leipzig as “test tube” clubs that should not be allowed to “trample on all the values for which… football stands”.

Salzburg were untroubled by the protests and duly dispatched Dortmund from the competition before going on to reach the semi-finals where they were unlucky to lose to Marseille in extra time.

Aside from Mali international stand-outs Amadou Haidara and Diadie Samassekou who were both signed as youths, the squad was largely reared from within and Austrian football observers described Salzburg’s progress to the last four under coach Marco Rose as a breakthrough.

Salzburg have been doing plenty of domestic trampling this season. Going into the weekend fixtures, they have racked up eight straight wins. The contrast with fifth-placed Rapid is marked. Last weekend they were well-beaten by Salzburg to leave them with only two league victories. And after sneaking past lower league side Mattersburg on penalties in the Austrian Cup last week, manager Goran Djuricin was accused of making an abusive gesture towards his own supporters, a far cry from the acclaim he was given just weeks ago for guiding the club to a 2-0 success over Spartak Moscow.

Even allowing for that matchday one success, markedly different challenges will be faced by Brendan Rodgers and Steven Gerrard this week, never mind that Celtic are on the road and Rangersat home.

The arduous nature of the Scottish champions’ task in a Red Bull Arena that Rodgers once attended for a pre-season fixture with Swansea City is further illustrated by Salzburg’s 3-2 win in Leipzig in matchday one, a result that moved Rangnick, now manager of the German club, to declare that his Red Bull bedfellows were one of the best teams in Europe.

Rodgers, notably, lumps Salzburg and Leipzig together as the “Red Bulls” when assessing the test that awaits his side this week, with their “aggressive”, pressing style an approach that Celtic haven’t faced all season.

“They’re good sides,” he said. “I’ve come across Ralf [Rangnick] before when I was at Liverpool and they were starting out on the Red Bull experience at Leipzig. They were in the second division and coming through and he was keen for us to send some of our young talented players over. He’s a nice guy. They work to a specific way and although they maybe came away from it a bit, they’ve reintroduced it. They’ve always had good players and they’re very clear in how they work so it’ll be tough.

“Austrian football has always produced very good players, good technical players as a country. You think of the likes of David Alaba at Bayern Munich and others. But they’re overshadowed by some of their neighbours.”

Or in the case of Salzburg, overshadowed by the company that for so long has been writing the cheques.