Analysis: Soccer-Versatile Alaba runs free to keep Austria dream alive

Soccer Football - Euro 2020 - Group C - Ukraine v Austria - National Arena Bucharest, Bucharest, Romania - June 21, 2021 Austria's David Alaba celebrates after the match Pool via REUTERS/Daniel Mihailescu

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - All it took for Austria to rediscover their mojo and advance to the last 16 of the European Championship for the first time was a simple positional change for David Alaba in their 1-0 win over Ukraine on Monday.

The 28-year-old, who set up the second goal against North Macedonia in their opening game, had a night to forget against the Netherlands when he played at the heart of a back three and conceded an early penalty.

A booking and another mistake which nearly led to a goal also meant Alaba played the rest of the match against the Dutch on a tightrope as Austria lost 2-0.

But coach Franco Foda's decision to deploy a back four paid dividends as Austria kept only their second clean sheet at the Euros while a switch back to the left wing allowed Alaba to play freely and dictate the game against a sloppy Ukrainian side.

Alaba may have started as a left back but the defender played like a left winger, constantly bombing forward and delivering dangerous crosses with both feet.

He created four chances in the first half alone and it was his perfect delivery on a corner that allowed Christoph Baumgartner to prod home the winner.

Alaba has won many major trophies with Bayern Munich, including 10 Bundesliga titles and two Champions League crowns, but he will still celebrate guiding his country to the knockout stages where they face Italy.

"It was our big goal and we are delighted to have achieved it," he said after Austria sealed second place in Group C behind the Dutch.

"We saw how Italy played in the group but, at Wembley, it will be great. We are here to dream and anything is possible."

If Austria are to keep that dream alive, however, they need their main forward Marko Arnautovic to step up.

Roberto Mancini's Italy side are unbeaten in their last 30 matches and they won their last 11 without conceding a single goal.

Arnautovic is the squad's top scorer with 26 international goals but the 32-year-old is one of a handful of players at the Euros who does not ply his trade in the continent.

The former West Ham United forward now turns out for Shanghai Port in the Chinese Super League and his rustiness was evident against Ukraine.

Austria could have buried the game in the first half but Arnautovic missed two golden chances on the counter-attack when he had only the goalkeeper to beat, slicing the first one wide and tamely hitting the ball at the keeper with the second.

Vfb Stuttgart's Sasa Kalajdzic, who made his Austria debut last year, scored three goals in World Cup qualifiers in March and Foda could opt for the 23-year-old to lead the line again as he did against North Macedonia.

(Reporting by Rohith Nair in Bengaluru, editing by Ed Osmond)

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