Red Bull Salzburg
Let’s start in Austria, where Salzburg are back in the Champions League, after being stuck in the Europa League for the last 5 years. The Bundesliga champions have been one of the most exciting sides during the past decade, with their focus on hiring innovative, young coaches to guide their usual crop of young talent. Adi Hutter, Roger Schmidt and Marco Rose all moved to a bigger league, and it shows just how good of an eye Salzburg have for spotting elite coaches.
Salzburg’s team under Rose was uniquely entertaining. The German tactician formed a side which was aggressive, forward-thinking and very flexible. Full-backs bombing forward, midfielders overloading the centre, strikers splitting wide, it was a side that was genuinely unpredictable in how they attacked. They reached the semi-finals of the Europa League in 2017/18 and went unbeaten in the group stages in the following season, a group containing RB Leipzig and Celtic. Their quality of manager and talent allowed them to perform far better than expected and helped highlight the young talent playing in some of the weaker leagues across Europe.Embed from Getty Images
By far their biggest threat is young superstar forward Erling Haaland. The 19-year-old has recently had the spotlight shining brightly onto him after breaking the record for most goals in a U20 World Cup game, scoring nine against Honduras (yes, nine). In 2018, Dortmund, Juventus and Manchester United were all showing massive interest in the striker, but Haaland chose to join Salzburg, a sensible move if one is searching for guaranteed first-team minutes. He didn’t play much in his first season, with the Austrian club preferring to let him settle first before throwing him into the deep end, but now with Dabbur gone, Haaland looks ready to tear Europe apart. While I haven’t had a chance to watch Haaland, a look at his numbers and goals show a player who could become one of the world’s best. If I had to compare him to any great forward in terms of skillset, Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Sebastien Haller is the first to come to mind. As the pair, Haaland is absolutely massive, being 6.2 while having the muscle of someone much older. His size and strength are reasons why he’s been able to start regularly at such a young age, but there is more to him than just physicality. Haaland is a fantastic dribbler, as well as being a very creative forward. For Salzburg this season, the Norwegian has been completing over 2 dribbles per 90, and his xA is currently around 0.30, more than Raheem Sterling and Mohamed Salah. He’s a clinical finisher who could similarly break onto the scene to Mbappe even if he might struggle in this group. Just remember Erling Haaland, because he is a potential superstar.
Do I think Salzburg have a chance to reach the round of 16? Not likely, but they could still cause a few surprises. Napoli look surprisingly vulnerable in Serie A, and Liverpool failed to win an away game in their group last season. While they aren’t one of the favourites to finish in the top two spots, they are likely to return to the Europa League once again.
Genk play in the Champions League for the first time since 2011/12, when Kevin De Bruyne was still playing for the club. The group stages have come at the wrong time for Genk. After winning the league last season, they lost some of their best players. Alejandro Pozuelo left in January to join Toronto for £8 million, while Leandro Toussard departed the club in the summer, joining Brighton for £18 million. The pair were essential members of the team, especially Toussard, who was fantastic for Genk last season. Their departures have coincided with a poor start to the season, with De Smurfen sitting in 9th.
While the losses of two of their most important players were problematic, their replacements haven’t settled as of yet. Theo Bongonda, formerly of Celta Vigo, arrived from Zulte Waregem for £6.30 million. He was pretty bad when the 23-year-old was playing in Spain, only managing 4 goal contributions in his final season. He has since found form but hasn’t made an impression at his new club yet.Embed from Getty Images
If Genk want to finish in the top two, they’ll have to hope Samatta can bring his form into Europe’s premium competition. The Tanzanian striker has been a constant goal threat since arriving at his new team, scoring 41 goals in 86 games since signing from TP Mazembe. He’s a classic goal poacher with the added benefit of pace, being able to play on the last man find the right areas in the box. He has so far scored 5 goals this season and is arguably Genk’s best chance of getting any good results in this competition.
Unsurprisingly, Genk are my favourites to finish bottom of the group. Before even looking at their summer business, the other sides in this group were of a higher quality. Not only are they the worst side here, but they’ve started the season poorly, and it’s hard to see Genk standing a chance, based on their competition.
Onto the current holders of the competition. Not only are Liverpool the favourites for this year’s Champions League, but they’re most likely going to top this group. However, this isn’t to say there aren’t holes in this squad. Liverpool still has a few key areas that needed addressing, yet didn’t. It could be down to spending so much on players in 2018, with Van Dijk, Fabinho, Keita, Shaqiri and Allison arriving for a lot of money. Klopp was clearly happy with his squad, but I worry if Liverpool does suffer from some severe injuries. Centre-back depth is still a problem, especially if Van Dijk suffers any kind of injury. The Dutchman transformed Liverpool from a fun, attacking side to arguably the second-best team in Europe. If he is out for any period, It will make Liverpool extremely vulnerable, even though Van Dijk isn’t the sole reason why they improved at the back. There still isn’t depth at left-back now with Moreno released, and Origi just isn’t good enough at all to be covering on the left if Mane suffers an injury. Liverpool have a fantastic team, but they were very fortunate in the fact that all of their key players didn’t experience any long term injuries last season.Embed from Getty Images
Nevertheless, the Reds still have plenty of threats in attack. Mane, Firmino and Salah always turn up on European nights, with the three forwards scoring a combined 43 goals in the Champions League since 2017. Yet, they are not who I will be highlighting today, instead the full-backs, especially Trent Alexander-Arnold. Beginning with Robertson, who has been one of the best signings in recent memory. The Scottish captain doesn’t possess the same talent as the likes of Marcelo or Alba but just does everything so well in terms of passing, dribbling and defensive actions, that it makes him one of the best in Europe. The difference between him and Trent is that extra bit of quality. Robertson is a terrific passer, but there aren’t many full-backs in Europe that can boast a spectacular passing range similar to the Liverpool right-back. His vision and ability to pick out his teammates from set-piece situations or from open play make him one of Liverpool’s best attacking threats.
There aren’t many issues regarding Liverpool’s team. They did struggle away in the group stages last season, failing to win any of their away games. However, while Napoli is a challenging game, they shouldn’t have much of an issue with the others. Liverpool are favourites for the top spot, and only fatigue could stop them from reaching the round of 16.
Switching from Sarri to Ancelotti might not seem like a drastic change, but it’s had a clear impact on the team. Partly due to the sale of Jorginho, Napoli switched from a possession-based brand of football to a more quick and direct style, getting the best out of the talent there. Fabian Ruiz had a fantastic debut season, Mertens and Milik were goal machines, and Zielinski was finally given substantial minutes. With Jorginho gone, Napoli didn’t need to build up play as patiently, instead opting for long balls into the channels to quickly transition the ball. Napoli did at times lack inventiveness in the final third without Sarri, but there was still room for this current group of Napoli players to improve.
Mertens, Insigne and Callejon, while reaching the twilight years of their careers, are still one of the best front three’s in Europe, but one of their new arrivals has to be the player to watch. After leaving Mexico and joining PSV, Hirving Lozano finally earned his move to one of Europe’s elite, moving to Naples for £36 million, a fair price for a player clearly too good for the Dutch top-flight. Lozano is everything you want from a winger. Able to play on both wings, the Mexican international can create, dribble and score plenty of goals. What makes Lozano so unique is just how raw, yet clinical he is. He runs at defenders with drive yet is so composed in possession. If anyone is going to replace the insane output that their front three have been producing, Lozano is the beginning of that move forward.Embed from Getty Images
While Napoli’s attack remains exciting, their weaknesses in defence have been well-known by this point. The loss of Raul Albiol must have had an effect on the side. The Spaniard remained fantastic even in his early thirties, and replacing him with Manolas was rather strange. The Greek defender isn’t necessarily bad, but his overreliance on pace to recovery from his own mistakes is not good when said player is reaching a point where his pace may start to decline. Spending over £30 million on a 28-year-old defender was insane to me. I’m not also unsure if Di Lorenzo is even good enough for Champions League football, and it’s made Napoli look somewhat vulnerable, and I can see their visit to Anfield being an ugly one. Nevertheless, they should qualify for the round of 16, if Salzburg doesn’t reach the level they could.