Coach Peter Schöttel had been happy to chalk SK Rapid Wien's 2011/12 season down to experience; with a raft of young players to be integrated into his side when he took over last summer, and the club reeling from failing to qualify for Europe, the accent was on rebuilding rather than glory.
In that light, their 19 games in the autumn netted them a satisfactory 32 points. The big surprise, however, was that such a modest return sent them into the winter break as Bundesliga leaders. Since the introduction of three points for a win in 1995/96, it is the lowest points total for any winter champion, nine below the average.
With SV Ried trailing in second by dint of having scored one goal less, some have speculated that Rapid's success owes much to the weakness of the traditional big sides in Austria; others suggest the smaller teams are simply getting better. Former Rapid and Austria defender Schöttel, 44, does not care either way. "Whatever the reason, I won't apologise for other clubs having fewer points than us."
Schöttel will hope to have no cause for an apology on Sunday, when his charges resume their campaign against the club he left for Rapid last summer, SC Wiener Neustadt – though with arctic conditions prevailing in Vienna, the match is at risk. "We dream about being top when the season ends, but that would be a big surprise," added Schöttel. "Salzburg have more chance than we do."
Yet while Rapid are talking down their chances in public, they are quietly keeping their fingers crossed that third-placed Salzburg – two points off the pace – will be preoccupied with UEFA Europa League progress. Patriotism aside, Rapid fans could still wish to celebrate if the side from Mozart's home town beat FC Metalist Kharkiv in the round of 32 this month.
FK Austria Wien and reigning champions SK Sturm Graz may have ruled themselves out of title contention over the winter, however. Austria lost forward Nacer Barazite and midfielder Zlatko Junuzović, signing Sturm's top scorer Roman Kienast as a replacement. Sturm, meanwhile, brought in Rubin Okotie to fill Kienast's boots, with the former international looking to restore momentum after a grim spell at 1. FC Nürnberg. Ried, points total notwithstanding, remain many people's rank outsiders.
"Mission 33" meanwhile is the rallying cry among Rapid supporters, who may yet have a powerful omen in their favour. Captain Steffen Hofmann saw the arrival of his third child this term, having claimed the title in the campaigns during which his first two were born. "We can start preparing the celebrations now," joked the midfielder.
Schöttel's team are no laughing matter, though. While they have not won any of their midwinter friendlies, they have played well, and despite being tipped to shed several players, only Christoph Sauer (Wiener Neustadt) and Hamdi Salihi (DC United) have moved on, with former reserves Lukas Grozurek and Dominik Wydra eager to step up.
Youth has certainly been having its day at Rapid: tellingly, 22-year-old goalkeeper Lukas Königshofer has kept the experienced Helge Payer and Ján Novota out of the starting lineup. Although Schöttel has viewed his side as a work in progress, perhaps they are the finished product after all.
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