Once the sound of the Champions League anthem fills the Wals-Seizenheim air, it will be an indication to the people that a twelve-year war has come to a close. For over a decade, the club has pushed to no avail to be part of Europe’s premier competition, with each passing year causing further heartache. Now, by boosting Austria in the UEFA coefficient ranking, the dream of being in the group stage will be no longer, now it is a reality.
It is the start of a new chapter for both Red Bull clubs. Jesse Marsch is building onto the infrastructure left by Marco Rose to become the first American to coach in the Champions League group stage, while Julian Nagelsmann takes charge in it for the second time, a year after becoming the youngest coach to do so at 31 years, 1 month, and 27 days.
The 31-year-old’s vision is slowly coming to fruition and he is enduring the club’s most successful start to a season having won his first three Bundesliga matches, in addition to a hard fought DFB Pokal tie versus Osnabrück, leaving Die Roten Bullen at the top of the pile heading into the international break. No coach had ever achieved more than four points from their opening two.
Jesse Marsch, on the other hand, has well and truly won the Salzburg fans over. Despite initial protests before his appointment, he has become the first coach to win his first five Bundesliga matches and has the joint best start to a season with six consecutive wins, doing it in an emphatic fashion with an average of 4.5 goals per game to get over the 1000-day mark since the last competitive defeat at the Red Bull Arena.
As the group stage draw unravelled, there was a high sense of anticipation surrounding Taxham that grew greater when FC Salzburg was drawn out of the pot. Once Group E was unfolded next, there was an explosion of emotion as Salzburg lined up alongside Napoli and current Champions League and Super Cup holders, Liverpool. Belgian champions, Genk, completed the line-up.
It will be a first meeting with Liverpool in what could be the contest of the group, as two teams come together to fight fire with fire. Salzburg’s record against English teams is far from ideal – in two meetings apiece with Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers, they are yet to come out victorious. A win against the European champions would prove to be a momentous occasion.
Albeit momentous, it would be extremely difficult task because, apart from the Community Shield defeat to Manchester City, Jürgen Klopp’s team have since had a flawless start to the campaign, achieving five wins from five that includes the alluded to Super Cup triumph in Istanbul.
In Napoli comes a familiar foe that Salzburg will seek revenge against. The two crossed paths in the Europa League quarter-finals last season after Napoli narrowly finished third in Group C. The trip to Naples left them with a mountain to climb that became steeper when Arkadiusz Milik made it 4-0 on aggregate in Wals-Seizenheim. Rose’s team fought back to reduce the deficit to one, but were unable to emulate the feat against Lazio.
Napoli’s start to the Serie A season has been an indifferent one. After two rounds of fixtures, Gli Azzurri sit slap bang in the middle of the table with one win after two emphatic 4-3 thrillers with Juventus and Sampdoria. The Italians have showcased that they know where the net is, but also the inability to protect their own, which Salzburg will look to take full advantage of.
Die Roten Bullen have never encountered Genk before, but this will be the second season in a row facing Belgian opposition after overturning a 2-1 deficit in the Europa League round of 32 with an emphatic 4-0 thumping of Club Brugge at the Red Bull Arena. Their record against Belgian teams reads a bit better with three wins, one draw, and two defeats.
RB Leipzig’s group is on more of a level playing field. Having started last season in late July because of Europa League qualifiers, a return to the Champions League was the minimum requirement and it was achieved through a third-place finish. Due to a low coefficient ranking, Leipzig were put into pot four and had to watch on as Benfica, Zenit St. Petersburg, and Olympique Lyon formed Group G.
It will be a first competitive meeting with Lyon and Benfica, while Leipzig faced Zenit in the inaugural Expedition Europa in the Europa League round of 16. In the first leg, Leipzig came out 2-1 victors with a late Domenico Criscito goal giving the hosts a scared ahead of a trip to Russia. Leipzig managed to hold on with a 1-1 draw to progress to the quarter-finals.
The 2007/08 Europa League winners have never progressed further than the round of 16 in this competition, therefore they’ll be eager to make the first step out of the group. With back-to-back games against Zenit, these results could well be the ones that decide Leipzig’s fate.
In the meantime, Leipzig will face Benfica on matchday one. Although they’ve never met in Europe, the two did come together during a pre-season tournament in England back in 2017. Die Roten Bullen were victorious that day in the Emirates Cup with a goal in each half from Marcel Halstenberg and Marvin Compper.
Benfica is another team flexing their attacking muscles in their domestic league, despite the huge loss of João Félix to Atlético Madrid this summer. Winning four of their first five, including a 5-0 thrashing of local rivals, Sporting CP, in the Supertaça, Benfica have scored 16 goals and conceded just twice. Leipzig will have to be on form to come away from Lisbon unscathed.
Last on the agenda is Lyon. This will be their first encounter with German opponents since a 3-0 defeat to Schalke back in 2010, and from the turn of the century they have travelled to Germany twelve times and returned with an even record to show – six wins, one draw, and five defeats. Leipzig, meanwhile, have been to France once and left red in the face after giving up a 2-0 aggregate to bow out 5-3.
This will be the second season in a row that both Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig will be competing in the same competition. Last season, Salzburg topped Group B at the expense of their sister-club, but this is a fresh campaign in which anything can happen. With both teams starting strongly, it will be tough to call as to who will progress further.