Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 30 September 2020

Manchester United look to add to LASK's woes in Europa League second leg

Austrian side have fallen apart since returning from lockdown and will have new manager in dugout at Old Trafford

Life could not have been much worse for LASK lately. Top of the Austrian Bundesliga and chasing a second domestic title when football’s lockdown started in March, the club from Linz were flying.

Long known as the first team to win the title from outside Vienna in 1965, they were threatening to do it again with a second title. In 2019, LASK were runners up only two years after promotion from the second division.

This was a side on the up and it wasn’t only in domestic competition. That second-place finish meant they qualified for Europe where they eliminated neighbours Basel in their Uefa Champions League qualifier.

A defeat to Club Brugge, another team who keep meeting Manchester United, saw LASK drop into the Europa League but that’s where the magic started.

Playing in front of 14,000 sell out crowds, LASK beat Rosenborg, PSV and Sporting Lisbon with one Bruno Fernandes in their team.

Those three homes wins saw them progress from a European group for the first time ever, where they eliminated AZ Alkmaar who had held United to a goalless draw earlier in the season.

It was another packed stadium Linz, Austria’s third biggest city of 200,000, for a fourth consecutive European home win and the reward was the biggest available in the competition – Manchester United at home in the next round.

All 14,000 tickets, including 700 from Manchester, sold out. Some travelling fans were en route to Austria when the news came through that the game would be played behind closed doors. Europe was succumbing to a Covid-19 pandemic and states of emergency were being declared.

Without their fans and three of their best players, LASK were hammered 5-0 at home – though it was tighter than the scoreline suggests.

All the tickets were refunded as LASK lost out on their biggest ever payday. Their fans in the city on the Danube were devastated.

The second leg is on Wednesday at Old Trafford. Four thousands LASK fans had bought tickets and arranged travel for that game. None will be there, as behind closed doors is now the norm.

LASK resumed their football on June 3, but having broken contact rules imposed because of Covid in training, they were deducted 12 points. That meant they lost their lead at the top to RB Salzburg who they had beaten away in February.

When they returned to action, their form nosedived immediately. Top of the table after winning all four games after the winter break, they began by losing at home to TSV Hartberg. Nor did they win any of their next four games.

“They played OK but just couldn't win after the long break,” explains Austrian resident Tom Middler of The Other Bundesliga podcast. “The fairy tale was over and they slipped from a six-point lead to fourth in the end. The coach was sacked as a scapegoat, and former Austria Women’s boss Dominik Thalhammer appointed.

"He could scarcely have a stranger debut than at an empty Old Trafford with a 0-5 scoreline.”

No football club crumbled as quickly as LASK because of Covid and they ended the domestic season with three straight defeats, though the fans were at least encouraged by news that the club plan to build a new stadium.

At present, LASK play league games in the 7,800 capacity Waldstadion outside Linz and rent the Linzer Stadium which is twice as big for big European matches.

The new stadium will be built on the site of the Linzer, which currently has an athletics track, with 2022 as the hopeful completion date.

“We're all hoping United will come back to Austria for the opening game in a few years to make up for it,” said Middler.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has named a near full squad for the second leg at Old Trafford and his team will stay in Germany if, as expected, they go through to the last eight and a game against FC Copenhagen or Istanbul Basaksehir in Cologne on Monday.

United’s manager is going all for victory in the competition the club won for the first and only time in 2017.

“We know we’re four games from winning a trophy,” Solskjaer said to The National. “The team has developed through the season and we’re delighted at finishing third but the next stage for this team is winning a trophy.

"We've been in two semi-finals. We want to go one step further and win.

“It’s massive [to win a trophy]. When I won my first trophy as a player it made me more hungry. You saw the highs and how much it meant to everyone.

"As a coach, I won the league with Molde and it was the first time in their 100-year history. Molde have won it four times since. The success make you hungrier.”

United could not be better positioned, but for LASK the Europa league represents a slim chance of consolation after their dreams turned to dust the moment they played United behind closed doors in March.

Updated: August 5, 2020 08:03 AM

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