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ÖFB coach Foda: “Lienhart has moved closer to the first eleven”

In the Bundesliga Philipp Lienhart is one of the best centre-backs, but in Austria’s national team he has mostly sat out. Why? ÖFB coach Franco Foda praises Freiburg’s centre-back, but also points to the great competition.

“He has developed extremely well in the last year or two at Freiburg and has become a regular. Lienhart made his 63rd consecutive Bundesliga start for Freiburg in Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Augsburg – the second-longest streak in the league behind indestructible teammate and German international Christian Günter (102). And, as almost always, he was a reliable figure in the Freiburg defence.

When asked about Lienhart’s strengths, Foda does not have to think long. “Defensively, he is extremely strong in two fights, he is organised, tries to take on a leadership role. He is technically good and can therefore advance into midfield with the ball, which I prefer in centre-backs. His pace is good, he often runs down opponents, he has good positional play and he is also dangerous up front when it comes to standards,” says the German coach of the Austrian selection and sums up: “Even if he should of course continue to improve little things, for example in positional play, he has everything a centre-back needs, he is mature and has become a complete player. “

In view of this all-embracing praise and the fact that Lienhart, in addition to reliable defensive performances, has already scored four goals in the Bundesliga, as he did last season, the question arises as to why Foda has not relied on Lienhart more often in his tenure, which started in November 2017? In total, he only brought him on eight times, at the 2021 European Championship only in the first two group games as a wild card.

“We have a good line-up at this position with him, David Alaba, Martin Hinteregger, Stefan Posch, Aleksandar Dragovic and Kevin Danso,” said Foda, referring to the great competition in the centre of defence. This has become even tougher since superstar Alaba, who has already played in many positions in the ÖFB team, is almost only used in central defence at Real Madrid at the absolute top level and has found his fixed rhythm there.

“Philipp would have had more appearances already, but partly he had to go back to Freiburg in the Corona period because of quarantine regulations after the first game of an international phase each time,” Foda explains, “and in October 2021 he was absent because of a tooth operation, so we would have needed him in Denmark.” The game in Denmark was lost 0:1 – the fourth defeat in the overall messed-up World Cup qualifying campaign that was missed in this group.

Lienhart can also play on the six

In the games against Israel and Moldova in November, which are no longer relevant for qualification, Lienhart played 90 minutes twice – a sign for the World Cup play-offs in March? Through the back door of the Nations League, the Austrians still have a chance to participate in the global championships in Qatar. To do so, they have to win in Wales in the semi-finals and meet the winner of the Scotland vs. Ukraine match in a possible final.

“Philipp could also play at six thanks to his good player opening and running qualities,” Foda recalls of the position where Lienhart last featured for Austria at the 2019 European Under-21 Championship. However, the 55-year-old also knows that Lienhart has not gained any competitive experience in midfield since then and is strongest in the centre of defence.

“When he has played, Philipp has performed well for us. Overall, he has taken a step forward and moved closer to the first eleven. He is in the middle of the competition and I am ultimately spoilt for choice,” says Foda. Of course, his line-up also depends on the availability of the professionals and whether he goes for a three-man or a four-man defence. Lienhart was and is naturally unhappy with his role in the national team so far, but remained patient and outwardly calm. Now it will be interesting to see whether his status will change and whether he will be allowed to extend his two-game starting eleven streak in the important game in Wales.

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