After failing to qualify for the European Championship in 2012, Austria is back on the European stage for this year's Euro 2016 beginning June 14 in Bordeaux against Hungary. Leicester City left-back Christian Fuchs has the potential to play a key role in Austria's success in France with his leadership as captain and one of the most senior members of manager Marcel Koller's squad.
It's only the second time Austria has made it through to the European Championships, but it will be the first time they've made it there on their own volition after qualifying as co-hosts in 2008. They crashed out in the group stages back then and failed to qualify in 2012.
This year, Austria's side is looking the best they have in decades and could turn out to be one of the tournament's true dark horses among the 24 teams competing in a newly-revamped Euro 2016. Koller's side put together a stellar qualifying campaign, only bested by England, winning Group G by eight points over second-place Russia, going unbeaten (9-1-0, 28 points) in the process.
Austria will contest Group F with the likes of Portugal, Iceland, and their former brothers in constitutional union Hungary with which they will open their Euro campaign on June 14. That union dissolved in 1918, but it won't stop the jokes of "Austria-Hungary is playing today, but against who?" from rolling in.
This particular group has the potential to unfold into one of the biggest talking points in the Euro 2016 group stages as all four can make their case for a spot in the Round of 16. With the tournament's move to 24 teams from 16, the new format makes things more interesting as the top-four third place teams will earn a place in the elimination stages.
Much like Austria, Portugal is looking the best they have in years and are outright favorites to top the group. Having the likes of a world-class player Cristiano Ronaldo in your squad is a game-changer any way you look at it. He has the ability to dictate games based on sheer individual skill and could turn the tide for Portugal on an off-day.
Iceland has been the fairy tale story of qualifying as they prepare for their first visit to the continental final tournament and could easily upset anyone in the group. Meanwhile, Hungary frustrated Norway in the play-off round to earn a place in France and always seems to find a way to score goals while staying resilient on defense. Both are by no means out of the Group F picture.
Koller's squad will be solidified later in the evening on May 31 following a friendly against Malta, but the spine of the squad has all but been determined and presents itself as formidable in all areas of the pitch. A potential center-back duo of Aleksandar Dragovic and Martin Hinteregger could pair up on defense between Fuchs and left-back and Florian Klein on the right, which seems to be the position that's most unsettled for the Austrians at the moment.
Goalkeeper Robert Almer ramains the number one for Austria and should start at the Euros, but Heinz Lindner is beginning to present himself as a potential starter for the Austrians.
Up front is where the Austria will do its damage with Bayern Munich midfielder David Alaba linking up with Martin Harnik, Zlatko Junuzovic and Marco Arnautovic ahead of him and Marc Janko up front at striker. Julian Baumgartlinger will play a defensive midfielder role in front of the back-four to cover for Alaba's advancements forward.
Fuchs will play the important role of linking up with the midfield and attacking players through his advancements up the left flank. His influence in that department was demonstrated during Leicester's run to the Premier League title, and Koller will hope Fuchs can play an important part in driving the attack forward on the counter by playing balls in to key areas.
Overall, Austria is truly one of the biggest dark horses of Euro 2016. Group F has the potential to be one of the most exciting groups of the tournament and could unfold in many different ways with the likes of Iceland and Portugal looking to make a statement this year.
I expect Austria to slot in behind Portugal for the second spot in the group or at the least one of the four third-place spots. If you're a betting person, the odds on seeing Austria in the quarter-finals, even semis, is not out of the question.
Der Kader gegen Malta und die Niederlande. pic.twitter.com/JyslkrUgaF— ÖFB - oefb.at (@oefb1904) May 12, 2016
Prediction: Second place in Group F before contesting a spot in the quarter-finals with the runner-up in Group B.