After 10 years, Salzburg finally gets European success

Salzburg goalkpeeper Alexander Walke celebrate after the quarter final second leg Europa League soccer match between FC Salzburg and Lazio in Salzburg, Austria, Thursday, April 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson)
Lazio's Senad Lulic, left, and Salzburg's Stefan Lainer challenge for the ball during the quarter final second leg Europa League soccer match between FC Salzburg and Lazio in Salzburg, Austria, Thursday, April 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson)
Salzburg's Munas Dabbur celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal during the quarter final second leg Europa League soccer match between FC Salzburg and Lazio in Salzburg, Austria, Thursday, April 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson)
Salzburg's players celebrate after Stefan Lainer scored his side's fourth goal during the quarter final second leg Europa League soccer match between FC Salzburg and Lazio in Salzburg, Austria, Thursday, April 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson)

VIENNA — Although the desired breakthrough in the Champions League has yet to happen, Salzburg is finally enjoying the European success it has been targeting for more than a decade.

The Austrian club is in the semifinals of the Europa League, the only team from outside the top five leagues still in the race for a European cup this season.

With Thursday's away leg at Marseille coming up, Salzburg is trying to become the first Austrian club in a European final since Rapid Vienna was beaten by Paris Saint-Germain in the 1996 Cup Winners' Cup.

"Everything is possible. We definitely want to go to the final," Salzburg forward Hannes Wolf said after his team's 3-1 win over Altach in a domestic league match on Sunday. "As we are in the semifinals now, it would be weird not to dream about the final."

Since the takeover and rebranding of the club by Red Bull in 2005, Salzburg has been dominating domestic soccer. It won the Austrian league eight times in the past 12 seasons, and is on course for its fifth straight double. Sunday's win extended Salzburg's lead over runner-up Sturm Graz to 11 points with five matches remaining, and it has qualified again for the Austrian Cup final, against Graz on May 9.

However, success on home soil has only been a minor part of Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz's ambitions with the club. He wanted Salzburg to become a regular contender in the Champions League, but the club has failed to live up to that billing.

Salzburg once played in the group stage more than two decades ago, but it has not managed to qualify again despite 10 attempts in the Red Bull era.

It has performed significantly better in the Europa League, getting through the group stage on five occasions. But it never went beyond the last 16 — until this season, when it beat Real Sociedad, Borussia Dortmund and Lazio in the knockout stage after winning a group that also included Marseille.

Israel striker Munas Dabbur gave Salzburg a 1-0 home win over the French side, while the teams played to a 0-0 draw in a meaningless final group match in Marseille.

Salzburg coach Marco Rose doesn't believe those results from a few months ago make Salzburg a favorite in the semifinals.

"Olympique Marseille is a team with extremely good individual players and a strong tactical approach," said Rose, who took over from Oscar Garcia this season to become the 10th Salzburg coach in the Red Bull era. "We need to come up with a good game plan to survive in Marseille and give ourselves a chance for the return game."

Red Bull has meanwhile shifted its Champions League ambitions to Leipzig. It is giving priority to its club in Germany, and many Salzburg players have moved to Leipzig in recent years. The starting lineup for the return leg of its Europa League quarterfinal match against Marseille included six former Salzburg players.

Still, its new focus of developing young players and preparing them for the next step in their careers is suiting Salzburg well.

The 41-year-old Rose led the program since joining Salzburg as a youth coach in 2013, after a career that saw him playing as a defender for Leipzig, Hannover and Mainz until 2010.

Under Rose, Salzburg's under-19 team won the UEFA Youth League last year. Playing an attractive, high-pressing game, Salzburg saw off some of the biggest clubs in European soccer in the knockout stage: Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and, in the final, Benfica.

"We have a very strong scouting network worldwide and we manage over and over again to attract really good talents," said Rose, who has given three players from his triumphant U19 squad important roles in the first team — forward Wolf and midfielders Xaver Schlager and Amadou Haidara.

The youngsters turn Salzburg into an interesting blend, with experienced players like goalkeeper Alexander Walke, defender Andreas Ulmer, midfielder Valon Berisha and Dabbur playing guiding roles.

"We have given all players a lot of confidence, and we have rotated a lot," Rose said. "That is paying off. It means that all players have got enough playing time."

Salzburg is likely to get a long-desired reward for its successful Europa League campaign. Rising in the UEFA coefficients ranking, Austria is now firmly closing in on a guaranteed spot in the group stage of the Champions League.

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