BRIGHTON, England -- Austria made it back-to-back quarterfinal appearances at the European Championships as they eased past Norway 1-0 at the American Express Community Stadium, consigning the two-time champions to just their third group stage exit.
Former Austria coach Dominik Thalhammer, when speaking after his team's quarterfinal win over Spain in 2017, said: "The goal was to get one draw; one point." In that maiden tournament, few had expected much of Austria, the nation drawn into a group with France, Switzerland and Iceland, all of which had some degree of pedigree at the Euros. Yet it was swashbuckling Austria who had taken the group by storm and played high tempo attacking football.
Whilst the team has changed in the ensuing five years, not least with Thalhammer having been replaced by Irene Fuhrmann in the dugout, much of the squad has stayed the same, the nation only able to bring more to the pitch now than then. Yet, once again, Austria were largely written off ahead of this summer's tournament.
The tournament's opening match at Old Trafford had been stodgy. Even thought England ended up winning that game, it was Austria who had the better early chances and showed their intent for the Euros. Against Northern Ireland in their group-stage match, the team ranked 21st in the world showed more flair and creativity, reigning it back in Friday's decider against Norway.
It was clear from the jump that Fuhrmann had built the starting XI from the back, guiding the squad to neutralise Norway's better attacking components and forcing players like Ada Hegerberg and Caroline Graham Hansen to drop deep to get anywhere near the ball. The midfield battle won by Fuhrmann's charges in the first half, the team with a handful of good attacking moves before Nicole Billa glanced a perfectly floated cross beyond Guro Pettersen.
There was the argument that Norway weren't ready for the match, weren't ready to step back out onto the pitch in Brighton, the site of an 8-0 defeat to England, their biggest ever loss. But that would be doing Austria a great disservice, the team able to cut off the better passing lines for Norway and reduce them to just one shot over the first 45 minutes. Now compare that with the nine in total Fuhrmann's team managed; they hadn't simply gotten lucky in facing Norway at their lowest ebb but had played their opposition to a tee.
When Austria unexpectedly reached the knock-out rounds in the Netherlands in 2017, they reverted to a more defensive style against a Spain team that would want the ball. This is something we have seen at this tournament, with Germany opting to simply let Spain have the ball but still cruising to a 2-0 win.
Five years ago, that strategy kept Austria in the tournament as they progressed after a shoot-out. And while the cracks began to appear in their semifinal in 2017, the unfancied team had done so much more than anyone expected of them. Austria didn't park the bus but rather played with an attacking freedom, the team with nothing to lose, their flow only disrupted when there was something that could be lost.
This time around, the team has leant on that experience as they've managed each group stage game, knowing when to defend and when to attack.
"I think it was a massive team performance, especially the first half, I think we were the better team, second half, obviously they had more possession and they pushed a little more," Austria captain Viki Schnaderbeck said after the match. "Obviously, they had to but all in all, it was a deserved win but you could see that we were the better team, in terms of spirt and what we put in and invested and think, yeah, it's amazing."
Although they have not been the most balanced team at the Euros, Austria have kept the seesaw level and when they knew Norway would have to come at them with both barrels in Brighton, they eased off and dropped into a more defensive shape and looking to strike on the counter.
With Norway needing at least two goals to progress and the Austrian defensive banks doing their job, the outcome aseemed certain, no matter how long they played for, there would be no route through to Manuela Zinsberger's net and by extension, the knockout rounds. Zinsberger, largely a passenger throughout the game with Norway only able to manage two strikes on target, both in stoppage time.
A vicious late strike from Celin Bizet Ildhusøy had been Norway's best move by a long way and it had simply been a moment of individual class from an under-used substitute. But of course, Zinsberger had been a match to the arrowed effort, palming the ball clear as if she was swatting a fly away.
"We don't need to prove it to someone else, we have to prove it to ourselves and that is what we did today," Zinsberger said. "We said, we want to compete to the next stage and that is what we did, also we heard like, they're always talking about England and Norway but it's always about us and what we want to prove ourselves and that's what we did today."
Still a long way from being a footballing power, Austria, similar to their much more succesful German neighbours, have shown a huge amount of footballing intelligence. As for their reward for their intelligent play? A meeting against Germany in the quarterfinals -- and that will be the biggest test the team would have faced.
"It's good to know that tomorrow is a regeneration day, like in the hotel, just relax one day and get the energy back, then analyse the game," added Zinsberger. "Take out the small pieces, what we need for the next game and just prepare for the next game ... I guess everyone will be excited, everyone will be energetic in the training session and that's what we need, just enjoy every moment."