By Brian Homewood
March 7 (Reuters) - Twenty-one points clear at the top of the league with 85 goals scored in 25 games and a goal difference of 63, Austrian Bundesliga leaders Salzburg are making strong claims to being the most dominant team in Europe.
Even the all-conquering domestic campaigns of Bayern Munich, 20 points clear at the top of the German Bundesliga, and Juventus, 11 points ahead of the pack in Italy's Serie A, pale in comparison.
The seven-times Austrian champions have won their last 13 competitive matches and, in five league games since the winter break, have scored 25 goals.
Although sceptics may claim that their record is partly a reflection of the lack of quality in Austrian football, Salzburg have been equally impressive in Europe.
A run of 10 successive wins in the Europa League culminated in a 6-1 aggregate victory over Ajax Amsterdam in the round of 32, including a stunning 3-0 win in the Dutch capital.
In both legs, Ajax enjoyed the lion's share of possession, 62 percent at home and 58 percent away but most of the time was spent in their own half, passing the ball sideways and backwards.
Salzburg are one of Europe's top exponents of the art of pressing. In the games against Ajax, Salzburg repeatedly placed four or five men just outside the opposing penalty area whenever the Dutch side had possession, preventing them from playing their way upfield.
The Dutch side continually lost the ball in dangerous positions, opening up opportunities for Salzburg's counter-attacks.
"What you saw here in Amsterdam was typical of the way we play," striker Jonathan Soriano said after the first leg.
"Pressing, pressing, pressing when we don't have the ball, and when we are in possession being very direct and aiming to get our forwards involved quickly."
Ajax admitted they could not deal with it.
"It was very difficult for us, especially when we had the ball," defender Niklas Moisander said.
"We are used to building up the play from the back, but they made it almost impossible. They did really well with the amount of pressure they put us under. That made us lose the ball in our own half, which was very dangerous.
"We lost every 50-50 ball and they tactically outplayed us. I can't remember something like this happening before in Amsterdam."
When Austria briefly became a football power in the 1920s and 1930s with Hugo Meisl's Wunderteam, it was fuelled by coffee.
At that time, Vienna's coffee houses were the focal points of social life and each football club had its own one where players, directors, supporters and writers mingled and philosophised about the game.
Salzburg's rise is somewhat less romantic having been powered partly by an energy drink.
In 2005, the club was taken over by Red Bull, manufacturer of the famous beverage and with more experience in extreme sports, and for the first few years they made headlines for all the wrong reasons.
After changing the team colours, attempting to wipe out the their history and removing the word "Austria" from the club name, Red Bull alienated the fans to such an extent that some formed a breakaway team who are now playing in the third tier.
Dozens of players were bought and sold with no clear philosophy and Salzburg, despite achieving local dominance, repeatedly failed in their main aim of qualifying for the Champions League.
But things have changed greatly since former Hoffenheim and Schalke 04 coach Ralf Rangnick was hired as sporting director in 2012 and fellow German Roger Schimdt became coach.
Rangnick, who famously led Hoffenheim from the third division to the Bundesliga in successive seasons, gave an insight into what was to come during the International Football Arena in Zurich in 2012.
"When we lose possession, we try to win back the ball within five seconds with aggressive pressing," he said, adding that players were trained not to foul opponents because it disrupts the pressing game.
"After winning the ball back, play quickly straight away, play direct and vertically towards the opponents' goal, surprise the disorganised opponents to get into the penalty area and shoot within 10 seconds of winning ball back."
That is exactly what they did against Ajax.
The Rangnick-Schmidt partnership barely had time to settle into their seats when Salzburg were knocked out of the 2012-13 Champions League qualifying competition by Luxembourg's FC Dudelange.
But, backed by their rich owners, they began hand-picking young, dynamic players from at home and abroad who they believed were capable of carrying out their tactics and the effects have clearly been visible.
They managed to beat Bayern Munich 3-0 in January, an incredible feat, even allowing for the fact that it was a friendly, and their performance impressed the European champions' coach Pep Guardiola.
"Salzburg were very aggressive, quick and intelligent," said the Spaniard.
"In all my career, I have never seen a team play with such high intensity." (Editing by Ed Osmond)
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