Adam Szalai is not exactly prolific. Hungary’s No9 managed to go through the whole of last season without scoring for both the clubs he represented Hoffenheim and Hannover and he came into this tournament without a goal for his country since October 2014.
This was the day, though, when fortunes changed for the man who paid for a round of the Hungarian tipple Palinka for 200 people in Budapest to celebrate their qualification for these finals.
A wayward free header in the first half, which ended up looking more like a clearance than an attempt on goal, betrayed a lack of confidence and Szalai waved an apologetic hand in the air early in the second half after making a pig’s ear of another opportunity. Yet everything fell into place in the 62nd minute, when he nicked the ball past Robert Almer and ran into the arms of the Hungary supporters to cherish a feeling that was long overdue. It was his first goal in 39 appearances.
Confirmation this was not going to be Austria’s day arrived four minutes later, when Aleksandar Dragovic was sent off for a second bookable offence, leaving Marcel Koller’s side chasing the game and down to 10 men.
It was a scenario Hungary relished and three minutes from time they added a second, courtesy of the substitute Zoltan Stieber’s delightful finish.
For Hungary, who are making their first appearance at a European Championship finals since 1972, it is a dream start. For their neighbours, who are ranked 10th in the world and came into this tournament with such high expectations, it is the stuff of nightmares. They peaked after 28 seconds when David Alaba struck the upright with a left-foot shot. Thereafter Austria never really imposed themselves against a well-drilled Hungary side who passed the ball with confidence.
What a day it was for Gabor Kiraly, the former Crystal Palace goalkeeper who celebrated becoming the oldest player to feature in the European Championship finals with a victory and a clean sheet. Aged 40 years and 75 days, Kiraly wore those familiar grey tracksuit bottoms, complete with muddy knees, and the excellent one-handed save he produced in the first half to deny Zlatko Junuzovic suggested there is plenty of life left in him yet.
Whether the same can be said for this Austria team remains to be seen. They face Portugal in Paris on Saturday and Koller knows he has a job on his hands to repair the damage, which was physical as well as mental. Marko Arnautovic held his head in his hands at the end and Junuzovic, who came in for some rough treatment and had to be withdrawn in the second half, departed the stadium on crutches.
Koller suggested the occasion may have got to his players. “We were too nervous, we lost the ball too many times, I am not used to my team being like this,” the Austria coach said. “We gave the Hungarians too many chances to win the ball back. I don’t know why we were nervous. You cannot just push a button and say: ‘Play at your best level’. Maybe a lack of concentration, we needed to be calmer. We knew the Hungarians could play; we were given confirmation of that.”
In Laszlo Kleinheisler, Hungary had the game’s outstanding performer. Playing in the No10 role, the Werder Bremen midfielder was a constant threat with his clever movement and intelligent passes, including the ball that released Szalai for the opening goal following a neat exchange just outside the area. With Christian Fuchs playing him onside, Szalai took a touch and, with the outside of his boot, steered the ball beyond Almer.
Dragovic then picked up a second yellow card for his late challenge on Tamas Kadar, seconds before Martin Hinteregger thought he had equalised.
With the game wide open, Almer superbly tipped Krisztian Nemeth’s arrowed drive around the post while at the other end Marcel Sabitzer blazed Fuchs’s cross over. Stieber, who had a spell on loan at Yeovil Town in the 2007-08 season, was not so forgiving in the 87th minute and showed wonderful composure to dink the ball over Almer after Tamas Priskin, the former Ipswich Town forward, sent him clear on the right.
“A dream come true for our supporters,” Bernd Storck, the Hungary coach, said. “We really hoped for this, it is a historic victory, once again you can see everything is possible in football if you work hard. The second half was amazing. We scored a great goal through Adam Szalai – in the training sessions he really showed he was up for the game. The second goal was also well worked, it was the cherry on the top of the cake – Stieber rewarded for never giving up.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010