"It has been an unbelievable year with this team," said coach Peter Stöger after FK Austria Wien took their 24th Austrian Bundesliga title in 2012/13. "We have also collected a record points' haul. It's just great."
With 1. FC Köln sufficiently impressed by those achievements to lure former Austria midfielder Stöger to Germany as their new coach this summer, his replacement at the Franz-Horr-Stadion has been left with quite an act to follow.
Nenad Bjelica, 41, earned acclaim by leading Wolfsberger AC to a mid-table finish last season, but the Croatian has been eager to downplay expectations for his new side. He is understandably mindful that it will be hard to match last term's Austrian record total of 82 points.
"The title favourites are FC Salzburg, without a doubt," he said, touting last season's runners-up as the team to watch, along with SK Rapid Wien and SK Sturm Graz. "Domestically, we want to qualify for Europe again. Another championship would be a dream. Internationally, we want to reach the group stage of the UEFA Europa League at least, but we can dream of the UEFA Champions League group stage."
The Violets will enter the UEFA Champions League in the third qualifying round, by which time their domestic campaign will have begun. The Bundesliga kicks off this weekend, while they have already beaten lower-tier SV Oberwart 3-0 in the first round of the Austrian Cup. Alexander Grünwald, Marko Stanković and last term's 32-goal league top scorer Philipp Hosiner were all on target.
Bjelica underlined the value of the knockout competition after the final whistle. Austria Wien may trail capital rivals Rapid 32-24 in terms of league titles, but they are undisputed cup kings, with their 27 wins nearly twice the tally of second-ranked Rapid (14). "The great cup pedigree of this club means we are committed to taking this competition very seriously," said Bjelica. "This match was as important to us as a league game."
It was important too as evidence that the new-look Austria are still up to the task. With their main challengers keen to run them closer, the club have made changes, signing Hannover 96 winger Daniel Royer and bringing back striker Rubin Okotie following spells at 1. FC Nürnberg and Sturm. However, injuries have prevented them trying to secure Nacer Barazite on a permanent deal – he was loaned from AS Monaco FC in January yet played just five league games.
Crucially, though, Austria still have Hosiner. His fearsome form in front of goal has made him a hot property but a transfer to TSG 1899 Hoffenheim fell through. The 24-year-old Austrian international has taken it on the chin. "I am looking forward to the job ahead with Austria," he said. "I want to prove my ability. Maybe another club and a better opportunity will come along." Bjelica will hope that – for now at least – it does not.
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