Szanto fires Hütteldorfers to safety
Ahead of Sunday's showdown with Sturm Graz the horror scenario of getting sucked into a late relegation tussle was still hanging in the Penzing air. With only three rounds of matches remaining it was crucial that Djuricin's side gained at least a point, whilst a victory over the familiar foes from Styria would all but put any lingering fears to bed. Not only would a potential victory release pressure, it would also provide Rapid with the opportunity to focus fully on the upcoming Cup final on the June 1st. However, matches against Sturm Graz are rarely straight forward affairs, and Sunday's clash would prove to be no different in this regard.
After making his long awaited come back from injury last week, the return of Louis Schaub to the starting line-up offered a timely boost to team mates and onlookers alike. A rallying cry was issued from the Block West with an impressive choreography that read: 'One for all, all for Rapid.' With the pre-match build taken care of it was time for the action to begin in earnest on the pitch.
An entertaining first half unfolded, with two sides committed to winning the ball high up the pitch and quickly transitioning into attack. The first goal mouth action arrived when Lykogiannis guided a free-kick over the bar (10.), before Tobias Knoflach was called into action to repel a shot by Schmerböck (24.). A fluid Rapid side full of movement sought to utilise space down the flanks when probing the Sturm defence. The return of the effervescent Schaub was paying dividends for the Green & Whites, with his ability to beat his marker pulling Sturm defenders out of position and creating space to exploit. And with their first concrete chance the Hütteldorfers went into the lead: after being fed by Murg, Tamas Szanto picked up the ball on the edge of the penalty area, dropped his shoulder to win himself a yard of space and drilled the ball low and hard into the far corner - 1:0 (17.)!
But far from letting their heads drop, Franco Foda's side looked to re-assert themselves and set about creating some chances: Knoflach was again called into action, this time producing a smart stop to deny Atik, before the same player passed up a glorious chance, guiding the ball wide with goal gaping after Schmerböck had squared across the face of goal (28.). The miss also coincided with the first enforced change of the afternoon for Rapid, as Gio Kvilitaia was forced off with a suspected abductor problem to be replaced by Joelinton. The Brazilian nearly made an instant impact when he drove a low shot towards the bottom left hand corner, but Graz keeper Grazei was alert and made the save (30.). The half time whistle went probably at a good time for Rapid: the Hütteldorfers were deservedly in front, but Sturm had been growing into what was becoming a more evenly matched affair.
The second half would prove to be as entertaining as the first for the 23,300-strong crowd packed into the Allianz Stadium. Joelinton ensured Rapid started on a positive footing as he got another low shot on target (51.), but another injury then struck as goal scorer Szanto was forced to leave proceedings early with Croatian striker Matej Jelic coming on in his stead. The impressive Schaub continued to be a constant thorn in Graz sides' as his weaving runs consistently brought him into dangerous shooting situations. Unfortunately the quality of the finish didn't always match the quality of the run, as Schaub failed to fully extend Grazei (57.). The afternoon then took a sour turn for Schaub as he became the third Rapid player forced off due to injury. We will keep you updated with news of the diagnosis.
Despite having been forced into three substitutions, Rapid pressed for the decisive second: a header from Jelic was tipped over the bar by Gratzei (66.), before Auer hit a powerful shot from range just wide of the target (68.). Both teams continued to commit men forwards, but it was Sturm who enjoyed greater possession and territorial advantage in the closing stages. Rapid did continue to look dangerous on the break, underlined by Thomas Murg's 90th minute chance, but the Hütteldorfer defence held firm and kept the Sturm challenge at bay to record a vital three points. Any lingering fears of relegation are now banished, with Rapid mathematically certain to retain their Bundesliga status. Attention can now turn to the forthcoming league matches and - of course - the season defining Cup final!
We wish the three injured players a speedy recovery!
tipico Bundesliga, 34th round:
SK Rapid - SK Sturm Graz 1:0 (1:0)
Allianz Stadion, 23.300 Attendance, Ref Heiß
Goal: 1:0 (17.) Szanto;
SK Rapid: Knoflach - Pavelic, Sonnleitner, Wöber, Auer - Szanto (54. Jelic), Schwab - Murg, Schaub (58. Traustason), Thurnwald - Kvilitaia (24. Joelinton);
Sturm Graz: Gratzei - Koch, Maresic, Schulz, Lykogiannis - Jeggo, Piesinger (83. Chabbi) - Hierländer (68. Alar), Atik (68. Horvath), Schmerböck - Zulechner;
Yellow Cards: Sonnleitner, Joelinton; Zulechner;