A dominant performance pays off against St. Pölten
Match day 14 of the Bundesliga began in strange circumstances for both Rapid and their guests St. Pölten, as kick off was delayed by a little under 24 hours following a flurry of unexpected snowfall in Hütteldorf just ahead of the original kick off time on Tuesday evening. Fast forward to Wednesday then, and the second of Rapid's January home double-header was ready to begin in rather more reasonable conditions.
Following a statement demolition of Sturm Graz last time out Head Coach Didi Kühbauer stuck with the same 4-2-3-1 formation; captain Dejan Ljubicic lining up against his brother Robert, Thorsten Schick keeping his place further forward in the midfield alongside Christoph Knasmüllner and Marcel Ritzmaier after a man of the match showing last Friday, and Ercan Kara once more starting alone up top. For the visitors, a front three which included two of the Bundesliga's surprise strikers (Dor Hugy and Alexander Schmidt) signalled the attacking intent of a confident side looking to earn their place in the top six.
With the game finally going at the Allianz Stadium, both sides enjoyed promising early moments in the opposition area, with Schmidt and Schick both failing to find the right finish inside the opening five minutes. Rapid's passing moves in the final third were paying dividends, and after a ball in from the right, Kara had a shot well-saved by visiting keeper Riegler, before Knasmüllner's follow-up effort was deflected away (11’). Moments later, a chipped through-ball from Ritzmaier was cushioned into the path of Kara, only for Riegler to block again at close range (12’). As the Green and Whites began to wonder how they were not in front, Schmidt had a rare opening at the other end, and punished us with it. After rounding the keeper, the LASK loanee slotted in for 1-0 to the guests (15’); to say it was against the run of play would be an understatement!
Thankfully, less than a minute later, Filip Stojkovic delivered a cross from the right flank which was placed perfectly for Knasmüllner to head home for his sixth goal of the season and level the scores! 1-1 (16’). After nearly ten minutes of relative calm, Rapid ripped open the St. Pölten defence again, when Kara exectued his role as target man by knocking down a high, deep pass: the ball was re-routed to Ritzmaier, who lifted his shot over Riegler’s goal (24’). With our next chance Maximilian Ullmann floated a long cross over to the edge of the box, where Schick struck a clean volley just past the upright (28’). The home dominance continued when Dejan Ljubicic pounced on a defensive mistake from his brother, but he too fired over the bar (31’).
As the first half wore on, Rapid’s attacking trio continued to cause havoc at the back for the visitors, with wave after wave of attacks coming off the back of long passes followed by some slick interplay. Schick was the next to have a good goalscoring opportunity as he finished up one such move by stretching to slide a shot wide from in front of goal (34’). Hugy did register a shot on target at the other end (38’) but it was a straightforward catch for Richi Strebinger in goal, and with that the sides went into the changing rooms on equal footing, which was something of a disappointment after creating so many chances in the first 45.
The forward momentum carried on into the second half, and just five minutes after the restart Knasmüllner got on the end of an early low cross and turned a shot towards the bottom corner. Riegler came up with another good stop, but when Kara smashed the loose ball goalwards it cannoned back off his teammate (50’). The running battle between Riegler and the Rapid attack didn’t stop there, as Knasmüllner had a header expertly turned behind (54’); it looked like there was no way through against this inspired showing!
We needed something special to find a breakthough, and it came from Kara! Schick crossed from the byline into a busy box, and with his back to goal, our striker stuck out his leg high above his head to steer the ball home in impressive fashion (66’). Finally, a precious lead for Rapid! Moments later, in a mirror of the first half, Hugy had the ball in the net for St. Pölten, but he was denied by the offside flag.
As the game entered its final phase, the chances began to dry up and Kelvin Arase and Yusuf Demir both got a run-out in Green and White to try to keep the ball at the right end of the pitch. The plan worked as intended, and although we didn’t test Riegler again, the Rapid defence went almost unchallenged for the remainder of the evening. The only sour note was a knock to Ljubicic, who was forced off injured late on, but aside from that, three precious points were a satisfactory reward after a one-sided game. RAPID!