Vienna in raptures over Rapid

The UEFA EURO 2008 final in Vienna does not take place until 29 June, but football is already the subject on everyone's lips in the Austrian capital after Rapid Vienna finished the domestic season with a 32nd league title to add to their long list of honours.

The team rooted in the Vienna suburb of Hutteldorf and traditionally clad in green and white actually sealed the championship on the penultimate matchday, defeating SCR Altach 3-0 in front of thier own fans at the Gerhard-Hanappi stadium. They then rounded off a dominant season with a 1-0 success away to SV Ried. The team coached by Peter Pacult finished a full six points ahead of outgoing champions RB Salzburg and no fewer than 11 clear of third-placed city rivals Austria Vienna.

Rapid will now fly the flag for the EURO 2008 co-hosts in next season's UEFA Champions League, with Salzburg and Austria Vienna challenging for the UEFA Cup. At the wrong end of the standings, Wacker Innsbruck were relegated to the second division after registering just six wins and eleven draws in 36 matches, although two of the victories came in a golden spell back in the autumn against Austria Vienna (2-0) and Salzburg (3-1).

Unexpected triumph
Pacult and his men owe their championship triumph to a scintillating patch of form in the run-in. True to the proverbial wisdom that titles go to teams who avoid slip-ups on the home straight, Rapid finished the campaign with 12 wins from a possible 14, including a breathtaking run of seven victories from their last seven matches. "My team improved tremendously across the course of the season," the Rapid boss observed, not without a touch of pride.

Rapid's title triumph has confounded the nation's pundits, whose pre-season forecasts more or less unanimously predicted a two-horse race between Salzburg, the runaway champions last term by an astonishing 19-point margin, and Austria Vienna. However, German midfielder Steffen Hofmann had other ideas, captaining Rapid to a series of stunning victories and earning the Player of the Year accolade.

The 27-year-old, on the books at Bayern Munich as a youth and reserve from 1997 to 2000 before making his professional debut for the Bavarians in October 2001, contributed ten goals to the Rapid cause. Another ten came from 21-year-old striker Erwin Hoffer, who rose to prominence as a key member of the Austrian side which sensationally reached the semi-finals at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007. Hoffer now rates as one of the co-hosts' bright young hopes for the forthcoming European championships.

Seventh heaven
The leading scorer accolade was retained by previous year's winner, Alexander Zickler of RB Salzburg. The 34-year-old Germany international, another former Bayern star, struck 16 times in the course of the season, although that was six short of his previous year's haul. Zickler now has an impressive 47 goals to his name since switching to Red Bull in summer 2005. Sturm Graz stalwart Mario Haas was the leading Austrian scorer with 14 goals, taking the 33-year-old level in the all-time roll of honour with the legendary Toni Polster in ninth place on 12 goals.

Appropriately enough, the new champions were responsible for the biggest shock of the season, travelling to mighty Salzburg in late March on Matchday 31 and running up a thumping 7-0 win, including a hat-trick from young Hoffer. While the Viennese were laying down an unmistakeable statement of their championship credentials, Red Bull coach Giovanni Trapattoni watched ashen-faced from the bench. A few weeks earlier, the 69-year-old had announced his departure from the club to take the vacant Republic of Ireland manager's job. Trapattoni is succeeded in Salzburg by Dutch master Co Adriaanse, previously working in Qatar.

The season just gone has offered more evidence of a steady upturn in Austrian domestic footballing fortunes, although the real highlight in Vienna and throughout the Alpine nation is yet to come when UEFA EURO 2008, co-hosted with neighbouring Switzerland, gets underway on 7 June.