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Austria hold the aces

FK Austria Wien are the team to beat when the new season begins on Wednesday.

Clear favourites
"Austria remain the clear favourites, that's for sure," said Walter Schachner, coach of last season's runners-up Grazer AK. "They have been able to sign the best players." Few disagree.

Super Cup success
Joachim Löw has slipped into the coaching hot seat at Austria, succeeding German compatriot Christoph Daum, who is now with Fenerbahçe SK. So far everything has gone to plan for Löw, whose side enjoyed a 2-1 victory in last Sunday's Super Cup showpiece against FC Kärnten.

Clear intentions
The former VfB Stuttgart coach is no stranger to Austria, having won the title with FC Tirol Innsbruck two years ago, before the club went into liquidation. He has already made his intentions for the season clear. "First, we want to defend our title," he said. "Secondly, we want to entertain our fans by playing better football, and thirdly we will try to reach the group stages of the UEFA Champions League."

New players
Löw has already made his mark by enlisting eight new players. Austrian international Ivica Vastic has returned from a spell in Japan and will be joined up front by South African-born Sean Dundee, formerly of Stuttgart.

Experienced arrivals
Experienced Dutch international Frank Verlaat is set to marshal the defence while the other arrivals, Joey Didulica, Rabiu Afolabi, Petter Rudi, Fernando Ariel Troyanski and Richard Kitzbichler, should help the club recover from the loss of Martin Hiden to SK Rapid Wien and Martin Hasek to SK Sturm Graz.

Financial backing
The key to Austria's domination is the financial backing of owner Frank Stronach, who has handed the club a €25m budget - more than the resources of main rivals GAK, SV Salzburg and Rapid, combined.

Brunmayr departure
GAK have been weakened by the departure of striker Rudi Brunmayr, who has been snapped up by Sturm, and last season's runners-up will hope his replacement, former Belgian international Michael Goosens, settles in quickly.

Salzburg loss
Meanwhile, Salzburg coach Lars Söndergaard has lost goalkeeper Szabolcs Safar to FC Spartak Moskva and it remains to be seen if his team will be able to repeat last years's surprise third-place finish, especially with the distraction of the UEFA Cup.

Pasching hold on to players
SV Pasching, whose season has already started successfully with progression to the third round of the UEFA Intertoto Cup, will be worth keeping an eye on, having kept most of their top players and added former international Michael Baur to their ranks.

Rapid look to youth
After several seasons of disappointment Rapid, champions more times than any other club, have decided to turn to youth and have released the great Andreas Herzog. As a consequence it is likely to be a season of transition for Josef Hickersberger's team.

Gress arrival
Frenchman Gilbert Gress has been signed up as coach of Sturm in an attempt to reclaim local bragging rights from GAK. The arrival of Belgium goalkeeper Filip de Wilde should certainly give the team more solidity. In contrast, VfB Admira Wacker Mödling, Kärnten and Schwarz-Weiss Bregenz have all maintained a low profile and are expected to struggle.

The Mattersburg effect
Newly-promoted SV Mattersburg are confident of survival though; having drawn an average attendance in the second division of almost 11,000 - better than any Bundesliga team. Austrian officials are hoping their popularity leads to a general rise in attendances as the country begins the long road towards co-hosting UEFA EURO 2008™.