RB Leipzig were a sensation in 2016-17, finishing second in their first ever Bundesliga campaign to claim a place in the Champions League this season. Much of the focus was on their brightest stars such as Naby Keita, Emil Forsberg and Timo Werner, but players like Marcel Sabitzer slipped under the radar.
The 23-year-old Austrian was an almost ever-present and scored eight goals for Leipzig when they won an historic promotion in 2016. He started 31 games last season as well, playing anywhere in attacking midfield -- right or left wing and through the centre -- while his versatility, speed in transition and tactical awareness made him indispensable to coach Ralph Hasenhuttl.
He netted eight times last season and most of those strikes were crucial. It was Sabitzer who scored the late equaliser at Hoffenheim to give Leipzig a point on their Bundesliga debut, thus making their 13-game unbeaten start possible; it was Sabitzer who got the winner against the same opponents later in the season. In fact, his goals helped the team to get points in all but one game: the magnificent opener against Bayern Munich on the final matchday. His bullet header went unrewarded as Leipzig wasted a big lead and dramatically lost 5-4.
It was still a huge moment for Sabitzer to score against the champions. Like many Austrians, he has always been a Bayern fan; his father, though, had other plans when the youngster started to prove his worth.
Herfried Sabitzer was a successful striker himself, even representing the Austria national team six times in the 1990s, and he was adamant that his son should choose the path with the most playing time available.
That is why early approaches from Schalke and Borussia Monchengladbach academies were refused. That is also why Marcel left Austria Vienna for modest Admira Wacker at the age of 15. He wanted to develop on the pitch and, when he was given a chance, his progress was extremely fast. He made his first division debut shortly after his 17th birthday and, aged 18, he got his first call-up for Austria -- though amusingly found out the news on the internet.
A year later, Sabitzer moved to Rapid Vienna, who finished distant second behind champions Red Bull Salzburg, and stayed for one season before he made a controversial transfer in 2014.
The youngster had a release clause of just €2 million in his contract if he left for a foreign club, specifically inserted so that a move to Germany couldn't be blocked, and RB Leipzig duly signed the rising star for the meagre fee before immediately loaning him out to their Austrian counterparts: RB Salzburg.
The outcry was loud, and some considered the move to be immoral, but the midfielder went on to prove the doubters wrong. He scored 19 goals in his only season at Salzburg, proving himself ready for the Bundesliga.
"Marcel's success is well deserved," Austrian journalist Marco Stein told ESPN FC. "From the hyped and arrogant teenager, he grew into a mature professional who works very hard on the pitch. His physical style is perfectly suited to Leipzig's approach."
Few understand how highly Sabitzer is rated at his club. During the summer camp in Tirol, players were surprised to find mottos designed for each of them on their bathroom mirrors -- an idea that came from the club's marketing department and was supported by the team psychologist. Keita, for example, saw the words: "Naby is here to inspire." For Sabitzer, the mirror message was crystal clear: "Marcel is here to lead."
And that is what he has been doing this season, with two goals and three assists in just eight Bundesliga fixtures. Last week was especially brilliant: Sabitzer found the net when Leipzig won 3-2 at Borussia Dortmund, ending their opponents' run of 41 home matches without defeat. He then provided an assist for Forsberg in the club's first ever Champions League win, 3-2 over Porto. And finally, his outstanding long range effort brought all three points in the 1-0 win over Stuttgart.
Now, he is ready to take on Bayern again in the DFB Pokal on Wednesday. It will be another emotional affair for the Austrian. Last season, despite his best efforts, Leipzig lost twice to his favourite team, and this term -- as Sabitzer himself says -- presents a different challenge.
"This season is going to be more difficult for RB Leipzig than the previous one," Sabitzer said over the summer. "Opponents know us better, and the schedule is tougher. We have to cope with that physically and mentally."
It might be more difficult but it can be even better, because Leipzig have gained experience and kept all their stars -- for now -- while also improving the squad.
And, with Bayern's rocky start to the season, they should be confident -- former Bayern player Hasenhuttl could even be considered a decent bet to take over at Allianz Arena next summer. If that happens, it is not unthinkable that Sabitzer's biggest wish could come true and he could join Bayern. He won't cost as much as the likes of Keita or Werner, but that only makes the move more attractive for the champions.