MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) shares his verdict on Saturday’s international friendly card.
Austria v Albania | Saturday 16.30
Marcel Koller was a surprise choice for the Austria job in 2011 after a two-year spell of unemployment spent studying coaching methods in Germany and Italy. Previously head coach of Bochum, his four-year stint ended in 2009 following a poor run of results and criticisms mounted about his dour, defensive style.
So his two-year spell on the sidelines seems to have done the trick. Koller has fostered a tremendous spirit in a squad whose nucleus is drawn from the side that made it to the semi-finals of the 2007 U20 World Cup. And far from pragmatic, Das Team are now one of the most watchable international sides on the circuit.
Two 1-0 victories over Russia were crucial when qualifying in top spot of Group G in a marvellous campaign that saw Austria record W9-D1-L0. Das Team saved their very best for a 4-1 counter-attacking masterclass against Sweden and have understandably caught the attention of the continent.
Koller’s 23-man squad for Austria’s friendlies this week features 11 players with at least 30 caps to their name with predominantly Bundesliga-based talent across the board.
David Alaba’s claimed the past four Austrian player of the year awards and is the obvious star, flourishing in a marauding central midfield role. But Marcel Sabitzer’s attracted the attention of Europe’s elite sides wit his pace and trickery down the left.
Considering Austria have W9-D1-L2 in their past 12 and W12-D4-L2 across their last 18, it’s not a huge surprise to see them chalked up 7/15 (BetBright) quotes. However, I’ve no interest in those sorts of prices in non-competitive matches.
Das Team have returned W2-D3-L5 in friendlies since June 2012 and although they’ve faced reasonably strong opposition consistently, it just reiterates the need to steer clear of skinny odds in these sorts of fixtures.
In Vienna, Austria have W9-D4-L5 from their last 18 but only games against Lichtenstein, Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan have the hosts cleared a one-goal handicap. And since 2008, they’ve kept only three clean sheets in meaningless matches W6-D4-L12 as hosts.
Albania are easily written off but they’re a hardy bunch and I believe they can keep this game much more competitive than the pre-match odds suggest. So much so that, I’m backing the 4/5 from BetVictor on the Eagles with a +1.25 start on the Asian Handicap line.
Backing this selection means, we’ll pick up a half-stakes win should Austria win by exactly one goal and a full-stakes win should Albania bag a draw or unexpected away success. The only way in which we’d lose out is if Austria win by two or more goals.
Visiting boss Giovanni De Biasi was awarded the country’s highest civil honour, The Honor of Nation Order and took Albanian citizenship in 2015. The Italian has moulded a defensively resolute and supremely organised squad, led by Nantes centre-half Lorik Cana.
Rarely are the guests embarrassed these days. In fact, Albania have lost just once by two or more goals in a 26-game streak dating back four years, including games against France (won 1-0, drew 1-1), Italy (lost 1-0), Portugal (beat 1-0, lost 1-0) and Denmark (drew twice).
The Eagles went through qualifying without conceding a goal away from home and haven’t lost by that two-goal margin since 2012 on their travels (W4-D4-L2). I expect them to stay within a goal of Austria here.
Hungary v Croatia | Saturday 17.00
Croatia comfortably saw off Israel 2-0 in Osijek on Wednesday evening but the victory came at a price. Skipper Darijo Srna went off injured after a poor tackle and Ivan Rakitic was ruled out 24 hours earlier after picking up a calf injury in training.
The Blazers fielded a new 3-5-2 formation to kick proceedings off and actually cycled through three different formations during the match with Ante Cacic looking to experiment and fine-tune his troops ahead of Euro 2016.
Inter Milan pair Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic grabbed the goals as Croatia looked good going forward but we’re unlikely to see Luka Modric again; the Real Madrid mystros played 68 minutes and is likely to be rested ahead of the weekend’s Clasico.
Perisic top scored in Group H qualifying with six goals and is likely to feature again with Mateo Kovacic, Milan Badelj, Alen Halilovic and Brozovic too – the Blazers are clearly well stocked in the midfield ranks. But without their two star playmaking names, I’m hesitant to take even-money on an away win.
Cacic, a former TV and radio repairman lacks the necessary big-game experience, for me. And staunch supporters of the national side have made their displeasure at his appointment clear since Niko Kovac’s sacking so the garden is hardly rosy despite qualifying for a fifth time in six campaigns since independence.
Bernd Storck helped Hungary qualify for a first major tournament since 1986 and the nomadic German has transformed the Magical Magyars into a strong group capable of upsetting the odds.
Of course, they’re a limited bunch and a tough draw at Euro 2016 makes progression unlikely. Hungary scored just 11 goals in 10 group-games during the qualification but their solid backline came to the fore when clinching a 3-1 play-off victory over Norway.
The Magyars had finished third in a soft Group F, losing twice – to Northern Ireland in Budapest in their opening fixture and to Greece in their last match when a play-off place had already been secured. And if we cycle back to September 2010, Hungary’s home record reads W16-D10-L6. Decent, eh?
Captain Balazs Dzsudzsak has failed to hit the heights of his PSV Eindhoven days at club level since leaving the Dutch game but he retains pace and crossing ability to trouble opposition full-backs in the wide playmaker role and with Croatia hardly stocked in top-class defenders, I’m not prepared to rule out Hungary here.
There’s not a huge range of form to go on but intriguing Croatia have W3-D6-L1 of their past 10 away friendly fixtures so I’ll support Hungary in the Double Chance market at 17/20 (Bet365).
Austria v Albania – Albania +1.25 Asian Handicap (4/5 BetVictor)
Hungary v Croatia – Hungary double chance (17/20 Bet365)
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