If SK Rapid Wien upset the odds in reaching the UEFA Europa League group stage last season, they aim to do so again.
Rapid's 2009/10 UEFA Europa League campaign began in the second qualifying round, before an away-goals defeat of Aston Villa FC in the play-offs earned them a group stage place. There they beat Hamburger SV 3-0 in their opening fixture, but picked up just two points in their next five games to bow out.
At the time of their European exit, Rapid were well placed in the Austrian Bundesliga yet a dip in form left them third in the final reckoning, behind FC Salzburg and, disappointingly, city rivals FK Austria Wien. Hence another early start to their continental campaign.
That came last Thursday with a 2-0 second qualifying round first-leg win at FK Sūduva of Lithuania. Three days later, however, they began the Bundesliga season with a 4-0 reverse at newly promoted FC Wacker Innsbruck. Angry Rapid coach Peter Pacult was clear: "This result is absolutely unacceptable."
Still, a good result at home to Sūduva on Thursday would give Rapid a third qualifying round tie against Bulgarian side PFC Beroe Stara Zagora – and the right to dream about repeating last year's heroics. "
If somebody had told me last season that we'd make the group stage of the Europa League then I'd have bitten their hand off," said Pacult.
Rapid sporting director Alfred Hörtnagl agrees that Rapid may have to upset the odds again to progress to the UEFA Europa League proper. "You have to be realistic," he said. "In the play-off round you're likely to come up against very tough opposition, so you need to have two excellent days."
There is reason for optimism, though. Unlike last summer, when Rapid's two top scorers Stefan Maierhofer and Erwin Hoffer moved on, they have been able to keep the bulk of their squad intact, although midfielder Branko Bošković departed for D.C. United in the United States.
The future, however, is very much on Pacult's mind. Young Austrian talents such as defender Mario Sonnleitner, midfielders Thomas Hinum and Christoph Saurer, and striker Atdhe Nuhiu represent crucial new recruits for the club, while right-back Tanju Kayhan has been recalled from his loan at SCM Wiener Neustadt.
Not perhaps a recipe for instant success, yet with captain Steffen Hofmann – German-born but an honorary Viennese – continuing to provide an uncompromising presence in the Rapid midfield, and the likes of Markus Heikkinen, Ragnvald Soma and Nikica Jelavić supporting ably elsewhere, the spine of the team remains experienced and powerful.
European success is within their grasp, though it is not the be-all and end-all for Pacult. "We want to continue developing our younger players and be able to offer the fans good, successful football," he said.
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