Austria made fools of anyone who had doubted their honesty. In the buildup to this game they had batted away the obligatory references to 1982, when their notorious “Disgrace of Gijón” with West Germany served both causes perfectly in navigating the World Cup group stage. A similar agreement would have required them and Ukraine to be on the same page but, in the event, for long periods it seemed jarring that they should even be sharing a pitch.
Andriy Shevchenko’s side would have finished second in Group C with a point and, given they had looked one of the tournament’s more enterprising propositions in previous outings, they could have been expected to assert themselves. They did not turn up, though, and a performance devoid of spirit and initiative means they must twiddle their thumbs while the ranking of third-place contenders whittles down. The odds on their progression are poor and they have this wasted opportunity to blame.
In fairness that owed as much to Austria playing superbly as Ukraine shrinking. They would almost certainly have qualified, along with their opponents, had they drawn but they never looked remotely happy to take that chance. Against the Netherlands they had turned out one of the more forgettable outings anyone will witness this month; here they cut loose and operated with guts and personality Ukraine could not match. They deserved to win by more than Christoph Baumgartner’s first-half goal, although there was rarely much risk they would be punished for failing to pull away.
“The boys performed fantastically today,” their head coach, Franco Foda, said. “We were determined to reach the round of 16; we wanted to write history. The boys took that on board and showed from the first minute that we wanted to win the game.”
The winner arrived in the 21st minute and, while Austria had not created a clear chance before then, it had been signposted. David Alaba had already caused problems with his delivery and produced one that counted with his side’s fifth corner. A teasing outswinger begged to be attacked and Baumgartner obliged, although he should never have been allowed to jab it in with an extended leg. Vitaliy Mykolenko had seemed more interested in backing into him than offering a legitimate challenge and was beaten easily; it was a handy snapshot of the difference between the sides’ aggression levels.
An hour and a half later, Austria had passed the first stage of a major tournament for the first time since that carve-up in Gijón. Given they face a rampant Italy at Wembley next, it may be tempting to ask whether this outcome will help them much. If Foda’s players can maintain this level, though, Roberto Mancini may be given something serious to ponder.
Foda had ditched his back three, fanning Austria out into a more expansive formation that allowed Alaba to maraud at left-back. He linked superbly with Baumgartner until the scorer was replaced after a head injury, while the recalled Marko Arnautovic provided a presence and nous they had lacked in attack.
Arnautovic should have doubled the lead before half-time after being found unmarked 10 yards out by Alessandro Schöpf, who had replaced Baumgartner. He seemed intent on finishing too precisely when a solid connection would have done, though, trying to place the ball across Heorhiy Bushchan with his left foot and seeing it squirt well wide.
It had been more or less one-way traffic, Konrad Laimer forcing Bushchan to turn his curler behind. Austria were spurred on by the indefatigable Florian Grillitsch, another addition to the lineup, and were only threatened before half-time when Daniel Bachmann saved from Ruslan Malinovskyi.
Bachmann had to be sharp just after the hour when Stefan Lainer, losing his bearings completely, almost headed into his own net. It was a crucial stop but not an action he had to repeat. A late siege from Ukraine never really came; Austria largely sacrificed attacking intent for control as the game wound down but still looked likelier scorers.
Shevchenko complained Ukraine “lacked energy”, and they will probably have a long time to rest up now. Austria, meanwhile, could enjoy a fuzzy glow.
“I can’t take it in yet, my skull really hurts,” said Baumgartner, who plays for Hoffenheim with Grillitsch. “I’m happy for all of Austria.”