Austria through to Euro 2020 last 16 after narrow win over uninspired Ukraine

Austria will play knock-out tournament football for the first time since 1934 after beating Ukraine 1-0 to clinch second spot in Group C.

They do so thanks to Christoph Baumgartner’s 21st-minute strike, as the midfielder stretched onto the end of the corner to score the only goal of the game. In the process, he became the youngest goalscorer in this European Championships at 21 years of age.

Though he was only able to last until 11 minutes longer before succumbing to a head injury picked up moments before his substitution, he was out at the end of the match to receive the acclaim of his teammates and supporters for taking them to six points. Their collective reward is a round of 16 clash with Italy at Wembley on Saturday.

Ukraine must now wait for the remaining group games to conclude before knowing if they progress. With three points and a negative goal difference, the odds are against them unless results go a very certain way. By loose comparison, Switzerland in Group A – the only other confirmed third place at full time here – have four points.

They will regret not holding on to the 2-2 scoreline they held against the Netherlands after battling back from 2-0 down. But mostly, they will regret not showing up here in Bucharest when the maths was on their side prior to kick-off.

A win and a defeat for both teams could not have positioned this match any better given neither team could afford to lose. Or worse given the acknowledgement that four points are enough to bag one of the four third-place positions across the six groups to progress to the knock-out stages. With that came the very real threat of a mutually beneficial stalemate.

It was a prospect Austria’s football association president Leo Windtner had to public rally against. In 1982, they played out a team 1-0 defeat to West Germany in the World Cup that allowed them to progress to the second group stage ahead of Algeria. But after securing their first win of any European Championships with their 3-1 over North Macedonia in the opening group match, there was clearly no appetite to tarnish this moment with any repeat of that icky history.

Ukraine’s single superior goal difference would have taken them ahead in second in any stalemate. But in truth, even as they penned their opponents back late in the game, the equaliser never looked likely.

Austria were more organised and dictated most of the match through Konrad Laimer’s energy, Marcel Sabitzer’s nous and David Alaba’s general brilliance. They were ahead on every metric in the first half, and with their fifth corner on 21 minutes, they took the lead when Baumgartner outmuscled his marker and stretched to divert Alaba’s cross beyond Ukraine goalkeeper Georgiy Bushchan.

It elicited a change from Andriy Shevchenko’s side, who up to that point had subsisted on counter-attacks. But as they pushed forward – Mykola Shaparenko drawing a good save from Daniel Bachmann – Austria found more joy.

Konrad Laimer stung the fist of Bushchan with a strike angling for the top right corner. Then, three minutes before half-time, Alessandro Schopft, a 32nd-minute substitute after a clash of heads saw Baumgartner unable to continue, burst down the right before squaring to Mark Arnautovic in the middle. What should have been 2-0 with the only the keeper to beat turned into a scuff chance wide of the far post with Arnautovic’s left foot.

The feeling Austria might rue their wastefulness in front of goal carried over in the second half. A repeat break on the right, this time carried forward by Laimer, ended with a cross behind Arnautovic when he was free once more. And as time went on, Ukraine’s default positions shifted a little further forward, and Austria’s a little further back.

The difference was, ultimately, composure. Franco Foda’s outfit maintained their defensive structure throughout, forcing Ukraine to work around them and often out of play. Crosses came in, clearances went out, and eventually, build-up play was parked for long-ball tactics that were just as benign.

Monday started with both sets of fans partying together. It will end with those in red shirts partying that little harder while those in yellow dust themselves off and begin crossing their fingers. Austria lives to fight another day – for Ukraine, only uncertainty awaits before likely disappointment.

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