It is crunch time for Austria – victory against Albania on Wednesday will take them a step closer to a play-off for next summer's UEFA European Under-21 Championship in the Czech Republic.
Indeed even a draw in Graz would ensure Austria of at least second place in Group 4, though they would make the play-offs only as one of the four best runners-up across the ten sections. Although top spot should not be discounted – Werner Gregoritsch's team would go to within three points of the summit with victory on Wednesday – they are chasing title holders Spain, who have racked up maximum points from six fixtures so far.
For Gregoritsch, the focus is on keeping Hungary and Bosnia and Herzegovina at arm's length. "If we win our home matches against Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, we will be in the play-offs," he said. "The atmosphere in our team is very focused. We are very keen to beat Albania and want to reap the rewards from our good performances last year."
Gregoritsch's side have undergone an impressive development and their maturity was best demonstrated in their most recent qualifier, when they twice fell behind to Hungary but showed the resolve to prevail 4-2. "The team showed quality and character in that match," said Gregoritsch, who also spoke about a "milestone in their development". Among the key performers in his team are FC Salzburg's Robert Žulj and Louis Schaub of SK Rapid Wien. As the latter is suspended against Albania, Austria's midfield will need attacking inspiration from elsewhere.
Michael Gregoritsch, the coach's son, is one of those players ready to prove his worth. Currently on loan from TSG 1899 Hoffenheim to German second-tier side FC St Pauli, he became the youngest goalscorer in Austrian Bundesliga history in April 2010. Gregoritsch Jr found the net at the age of 15 years and 284 days when he struck with his second touch on his Kapfenberger SV debut against FK Austria Wien.
Due to the significance of the Albania fixture Gregoritsch has received assistance from senior team coach Marcel Koller, who has opted not to call up 1. FC Köln defender Kevin Wimmer. Though Koller has included Marcel Sabitzer, Martin Hinteregger and David Alaba in his squad for the friendly against Uruguay, the U21 set-up now looks strong enough to cope.
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