B.Tears of relief flowed from Michael Gregoritsch. “It’s fantastic,” said the Austrians’ goalscorer after the redeeming first victory at a European football championship. Together with the substitute Marko Arnautovic, the professional of FC Augsburg led the team on Sunday in Bucharest to 3-1 (1-1) against the long-time equal tournament newcomer North Macedonia.
Stefan Lainer (18th) had brought the ÖFB selection of the German national coach Franco Foda in front of around 13,000 spectators, old star Goran Pandev (28th) equalized with the help of the weak defense around the future Real star David Alaba. Then the Joker duo met Gegoritsch (78th) and Arnautovic (89th).
“It was a difficult year for me,” emphasized the visibly moved Gregoritsch. “The goal is for everyone who believed in me.” Teammate Alaba, who was later named Man of the Match, spoke of a “very important victory”.
In 2008 and 2016, the Austrians left without a win after the group stage. The North Macedonians, who sensationally defeated Germany in the World Cup qualification at the end of March, narrowly missed their first successful European Championship. In Group C, Ukraine and co-favorites Netherlands are still waiting for both teams.
Veteran Pandev scores to equalize
Supported by their fans, who made up the majority of the visitors in the Arena Nationala and loudly cheered every successful action by their heroes in the initial phase, the North Macedonians started quite boldly. The Austrians, from whose starting line-up nine professionals played in the German Bundesliga last season, looked surprised and initially tried to control. Captain Alaba, who moves from Bayern Munich to Spain after the European Championship, acted as a ball distributor and middle man in the defense chain.
But the Austrians took their first chance very cold. After a wonderful cross from Leipzig’s Marcel Sabitzer from the left half-field, Lainer hit the second post with a direct pick to give a surprising lead. When celebrating the goal, the full-back, just like Gregoritsch later, held up a shirt that read “Eriksen stay strong” – an encouraging message to Christian Eriksen, who had collapsed in the game against Finland (0-1) the day before and had to be revived. Four minutes later, Stuttgart striker Sasa Kalajdzic almost went for it, but failed from close range to goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski.
The North Macedonians took a few minutes to regroup – and were then brought back into the game by the Austrians. After his front men shot each other, keeper Daniel Bachmann stormed out of his box, but could not secure the ball. Captain and national hero Pandev, who shot the North Macedonians in the qualifying playoff against Georgia (1-0) in November for the tournament, profited and won the game to make it 1-1. Then he stretched his forefinger towards the sky.
At the beginning of the second half, the Austrians, who had to replace Aleksandar Dragovic from Leverkusen after an aerial duel with Aleksandar Trajkosvki at break, made many mistakes in the build-up of the game. The experienced and ball-safe Alaba stayed behind for the time being. At first there were no further opportunities – then North Macedonia suddenly had the big one. Boban Nikolov failed from an acute angle on this time well-reacting ÖFB keeper Bachmann, Pandev put the margin over the gate (63.). Two minutes later, Joker forgave Gregoritsch on the other side.
The inclusion of the Augsburg player and the former Bundesliga professional Arnautovic did Austria’s attacking game well – and ultimately paid off. After a cross from the now more offensive Alaba from the left, Gregoritsch scored 2-1 for the Foda-Elf from a few meters, later Arnautovic increased it to 3-1.