Sunday 23 July 2017

Blue-chip Alaba is key to Austrian ambition

Irish fans know Bayern Munich star can pose serious problems

David Alaba in training ahead of tomorrow’s game against Ireland in Vienna. Picture: Reuters
David Alaba in training ahead of tomorrow’s game against Ireland in Vienna. Picture: Reuters

Suspense has been drained from Austria's Player of the Year award since their youngest ever international scooped the honour for the first time in 2011.

Two years after his senior debut at 17, David Alaba was voted as his country's top performer. He retained the title in 2012. And 2013, when he scored goals in Dublin and Vienna that effectively ended Giovanni Trapattoni's tenure. 2014 went his way too. You can guess where 2015's gong went as well.

The Bayern Munich star is the most recognisable member of the squad that will host Ireland on Saturday, a genuine blue-chip performer that has only known life in the upper echelons of the game since the Bundesliga giants learned of a prodigious 16-year-old that was on the verge of a breakthrough to Austria Vienna's first team.

He was recruited to Germany before that could happen.

Austria's poster boy has an identity which reflects its multicultural society. His father, George, is a Nigerian DJ and rapper who released a few minor hits back in the day while his mother is a Filipino nurse. Football-wise, it left him in a slightly complicated position.

Plans to represent Nigeria at youth level were scuppered by the African nation's preference for home-based players in his age group.

Confess

"I wanted to play for Nigeria but I must confess there was no formal approach for me," he explained, a revelation that must surely have spelled bad news for some poor soul back in Abuja.

The Philippines was never really an option although they did make an approach but he is proud of his heritage, wearing their national flag on one of his boots during the Euros.

But it's Austria that got their man and they would be a considerably inferior side without him.

It's possible that he could face competition for the 2016 award after the French adventure fell way below expectations. The dark horses were home, as the saying goes, before the postcards.

And in Marko Arnautovic, they have a prodigious attacker that is capable of hurting defences. Glenn Whelan and Jon Walters know his ability and his quirks.

Alaba is the marquee name, though, with Roy Keane speaking in complimentary terms earlier this week.

"I like him," said the Irish number two. "A good player that's playing at the highest level. And if you watch their games, a lot goes through him. They've a lot of good players but he's a very good player for them."

Pep Guardiola, his former boss at Bayern Munich, was more expressive in his description of Alaba when they worked together. "He's just incredible, he's just wow," was the enthusiastic description. "A future all-time best player in the club's history."

Former Bayern boss Ottmar Hitzfeld had previously described Alaba as a 'gift from the heavens' - he was also their youngest player to figure in a competitive match at 17 years and 7 months - and his extraordinary versatility is what endeared him to successive bosses.

He made his name as a left-back, but Guardiola sporadically deployed him on the left of a back three and he has also filled a variety of midfield roles from holding player to tricky winger.

Austria have primarily used him in the centre of the park, a bit like a schoolboy football side which simply places their best player in the middle of the action in the hope that he will make them tick.

Ireland learned first hand what he was capable of doing three years ago when, seconds from victory at the Aviva, they allowed him to slip into a pocket at the edge of the box and unleash an instinctive left-footer that took a deflection en route to goal.

That left Trapattoni on the ropes and it was Alaba that finished them off in Vienna when he again had the presence of mind to halt a run and wait for the ball to come to him in a crowded box before smashing it into the back of the net with his right.

"He's a top player," said Richard Dunne earlier this week, with a nod to those fixtures from his own memory bank. "There's not much you can do when a player like him is on form.

"But you wouldn't look at them and think they are a much better side than us There was nothing in the match back then. You walk off the pitch feeling heartbroken because there was nothing in the match. Unfortunately for us, it went against us."

Austria looked to be a mediocre side in those World Cup qualifiers and, in that context, the positioning of Alaba made sense.

Still, he is fallible and after steamrolling through the Euro 2016 qualifiers with an emerging group, the leading light was incapable of brightening their French visit.

Marcel Koller started off with Alaba in central midfield and pushed him up into what was effectively a number 10 role against Portugal and Iceland.

He was hooked after 65 minutes against the tournament winners and fought a losing battle in the defeat to the tournament's surprise packages that sealed their fate.

Outside observers wondered why one of the world's outstanding left-backs was out of his comfort zone at the Euros and back at Bayern, the new gaffer Carlo Ancelotti subscribes to the view that he should stick with his best position. "Ancelotti knows where I feel most comfortable," he said in August.

But Austrian media have suggested that the player wants to play in midfield for his country and, while they have issues at left full since Christian Fuchs retired, UEFA's idea of the best performer in that position over the past three seasons has not stepped into the breach.

Last month Koller picked him next to skipper Julian Baumgartlinger in the engine room for the eventful double-header where a 2-2 draw with Wales was followed by a 3-2 defeat in Serbia and he should continue there against Ireland tomorrow.

Alaba has scored 11 goals wearing national colours so he will be a threat in that regard, but his athleticism means he is liable to pop up anywhere.

Ancelotti has left him on the bench a handful of times this term as part of squad rotation, but his employers know they have a major asset and he has been tied down to 2021 to fend off interest from Real Madrid and Guardiola's Man City.

He needs to have a bad day if Ireland are to end their year on a high.

Irish Independent

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