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Big spending Salzburg are the team to beat, but Rapid Vienna should give them a run for their money

By Harry Miltner
Defending champions Salzburg will be the team to beat once again as the seemingly endless financial input of energy-drink tycoon Didi Mateschitz means they can afford players no other Austrian side can.

Newly appointed coach Huub Stevens has strengthened his team’s midfield, attracting Bosnian playmaker Admir Vladavic (from MSK Zilina of Slovakia) and globetrotter Simon Cziommer (AZ Alkmaar), as well as defensive midfielders Dusan Svento (Slavia Prague) and Thomas Augustinussen (Denmark’s AaB. Switzerland international Christian Schwegler (Young Boys) and Franz Schiemer (Austria Wien) were also signed to help stabilise the defence. Up front, top scorer Marc Janko extended his contract but could still leave for the Premier League before the transfer window closes.

Capitalizing on the sizzling atmosphere at the Hanappi Stadium in Vienna, where Rapid are almost unbeatable in front of their home fans, last season’s runners-up should once again be their biggest challengers. But while controversial coach Peter Pacult has brought in Montenegro defender Milan Jovanovic, he looks set to lose one of his main strikers: either Stefan Maierhofer or Erwin “Jimmy” Hoffer, who has impressed with his lightning speed and ice cool finishing, has attracted interest from Blackburn, Hamburg and Schalke among others.

“Hoffer is widely known in the Bundesliga and I would love to have him on board,” said new Schalke coach Felix Magath when Rapid met the German side in a pre-season friendly.

The potential dark horse of the upcoming season is Austria Wien. The capital’s posh club has spent a lot of money over the summer “to form a potential champion side”, according to general manager Thomas Parits. Following the departures of skipper Jocelyn Blanchard and Fernando Trojansky (both to Austria Karnten), Mario Bazina (Bosnia’s Siroki Brijeg) and Schiemer (Saltzberg), they snatched the country’s up-and-coming playmaker Zlatko Junuzovic and international defender Manuel Ortlechner (both from Austria Karnten), midfielders Petr Vorisek (Sparta Prague) and Florian Klein (LASK), Under-21 ace Julian Baumgartlinger (1860 Munich), and Czech strikers Tomas Jun (Teplice) and Michael Liendl (Kapfenberg). However, defensive talent Aleksandar Dragovic may still leave the Violets before the window closes.

Former Champions League starters Sturm have become Austria’s biggest hotbed for talented youngsters. Thanks to head coach Franco Foda, the club has developed players like Werder Bremen’s Sebastian Prodl, Torino’s Jurgen Saumel and Salzburg’s Christoph Leitgeb. The next stars in the making are Daniel Beichler, Jakob Jantscher and Andreas Lukse, while Croat defender Gordon Schildenfeld has come in on loan from Besiktas with the hope of boosting his international hopes.

Ried are labelled as one of the top relegation candidates on an annual basis, but the small-town club have managed to stay in the league for the past four seasons. Head coach Paul Gludovatz, who led Austria’s Under-20 side to a sensational semi-final berth at the World Youth Cup in 2007, has formed a compact team around veterans Herwig Drechsel and Oliver Glasner, as well as Spanish striker Nacho, who has helped facilitate the move of fellow countryman Jonathan Carril.

Newly promoted Magna Wiener Neustadt will be much stronger than the usual newcomer to the top flight. Based on Austro-Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach’s money, Magna’s squad contains 15 players with top-league experience, including six former internationals. Salzburg’s Ronald Gercaliu turned down an offer from Celtic in order to join the newcomers and, together with Czech international Pavel Kostal, from Slovan Liberec, he will shape the defence.

LASK, Austria Karnten, Kapfenberg and Mattersburg are all danger of going down. After team manager Hans Krankl’s departure, LASK have suffered another blow with the retirements of club heroes Ivica Vastic and Michael Baur. Former Austrian international Thomas Prager will most likely leave the club, too. New coach, inexperienced Matthias Hamann, will miss them dearly.

Although Karnten have had to lower their sights financially since former president Jorg Haider’s death, team manager Frank Schinkels has convinced former Austria Wien skipper Blanchard and team-mate Trojansky to move from the Danube to Lake Worthersee. Youngster Markus Pink impressed during pre-season and he might become the option up front that Schinkels has been looking for. Pink will be fed with passes from Malta international Andre Schembri, who is expected to become the Lions’s new playmaker.

Despite escaping the drop in their first season in the top flight, Kapfenberg coach Werner Gregoritsch has replaced 12 players. However, with the exception of team skipper Michael Liendl (Austria Wien), no key player has left the club. Instead, Gregoritsch closed the most surprising deal of the summer by signing former Czech international Marek Heinz from Brno.

Mattersburg only just managed to stay alive last season and are this year’s hottest bet for relegation. Without star striker Carsten Jancker and probably fellow attacker Ilco Naumoski, Mattersburg will be toothless up front.
Harry Miltner

Season starts July 17, 2009
Season ends May 13, 2010
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