Rapid start the new year with a strong display
The tipico Bundesliga sprang back to life for Rapid on Friday evening in Hütteldorf, and the first game up was a huge clash against fellow high-fliers SK Sturm. It wasn't just the start of the final phase of the regular season, but also the first of two home games within a matter of days. The situation in the table only added extra incentive for this meeting between two of Austria's heavyweights, with the winner guaranteed to go top for at least a few days. To get us going, captain Dejan Ljubicic returned in central midfield, and the big question about the starting goalkeeper was answered with Richard Strebinger getting the nod! Tactically, the usual 4-2-3-1 system was deployed once more, with Stojkovic, Hofmann, Barac and Ullmann making up the back four; Ljubicic and Petrovic as the defensive midfielders; Schick, Knasmüllner and Ritzmaier further forward, and alone up front; Ercan Kara.
Despite the offensive set-up, our defence was called into action first! Hofmann cleared for a corner, before a training ground routine caught out many at the back, but not Strebinger, who tipped Hierländer’s effort over the bar (2’). At the other end Schick wound up for a shot from an angle, but the ball was punched to safety by Siebenhandl. Rapid might not have scored from the very first chance, but the resulting corner did the trick! Ritzmaier’s delivery was on point for Kara, who had broken free of his marker to volley in at the near post for the perfect start: 1-0 (7’)!
The game was being played out as many had hoped, with two attacking sides going for it at every opportunity, and Strebinger was certainly kept busy defending our early lead. He placed his body perfectly to deny Friesenbichler when the Sturm man broke free in the box (21’), before Knasmüllner's volley rounded off a lovely move for the Green and Whites, but ended up just over (28’). Our keeper was soon back in action though, saving from Friesenbichler who was well-placed again, only this time the loose ball fell fortunately for Jantscher to fire in and level things up at 1-1 (31’).
Rapid began to dominate the latter part of the first half following the equaliser. Barac tried a speculative effort from the edge of the box after a corner kick, and he wasn’t far off target as his deflected effort fizzed inches over Siebenhandl's crossbar (42’). The home side were not satisfied with that, and Dejan Ljubicic showed his value to the side by floating a delightful chipped pass over the Sturm defence; full credit to Thorsten Schick who stayed alert and onside before poking his first time shot into the bottom corner with the last action of the half. 2-1 at the break!
From the restart, Sturm unsurprisingly came out to attack, but Rapid were ready. Ullmann showed his attacking qualities with a curling shot from the edge of the area, Siebenhandl dived across to deny him (48’). Barac (who had an incredible statistic of 100% duels won!) tried with his head and with his foot, but found only the goalkeeper again, but this time the loose ball was ours, and once Barac hammered back across goal, Christoph Knasmüllner was in the right place at the right time to turn it home for 3-1 (50’)! The Green and Whites had certainly left their mark on the league’s best defence, which had conceded just five goals all season before this meeting - suddenly that figure was eight, and Rapid deserved their lead!
Bekim Balaj came on as Sturm looked to boost their attack, but his stay was a short one. The striker saw red for charging into Ritzmaier near the penalty area (70’), and his run-out lasted just four minutes in Hütteldorf. Ritzmaier continued after treatment, and Rapid now had a numerical advantage to add to the lead. Defender Barac narrowly missed the chance to cap off his attacking display with a goal, as his shot was bravely blocked at close range (74’), but Rapid would eventually find a fourth to crown an impressive new year’s opener. Siebenhandl fumbled a high ball into the box, allowing Schick to steal it away and pass to Yusuf Demir who turned on a sixpence and smashed into the top corner with the game’s final chance (88’). That was his second of the season, and his second against Sturm. For Rapid, a 4-1 win was just reward for a great game; for Sturm, it was a first away defeat of the season. We mustn’t rest on our laurels though, as Rapid go again in just a few days’ time when we face SKN St. Pölten. We can allow ourselves to enjoy a few moments at the top of the table, at least - RAPID!
Photos: GEPA Pictures.