The Next Mbappe? UEFA Champions League Preview 19/20 – Group E

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. 

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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. 

KRC Genk 

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. 

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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. 

Liverpool 

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. 

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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. 

Napoli

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.

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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.

Predictions for Serie A – 19/20

Last, but certainly not least, is Serie A. While not my favourite league to watch, there are still plenty of things to look forward to. With the Milan clubs under new management, Napoli ready to challenge Juve and Atalanta now in the Champions League, let’s go through who will stand out and who will fall behind.

Outside Shout – Roma

After their fantastic 16/17 season, which saw them finish with over 90 points, there was supposed to be light at the end of the tunnel. Nainggolan had a stand out season playing as a forward, Mohamed Salah reached his potential and Dzeko had arguably his best season since winning the title with Wolfsburg. The season did end in the departures of club legend Francesco Totti and manager Luciano Spaletti. However, the arrival of Monchi did present a future where they could remain competitive with Juventus. The appointment of Eusebio Di Francesco, who finished 10th with an interesting Sassuolo side, seemed to be a promising choice as Spaletti’s replacement.

However, Roma became a lot worse over the space of a few months, and for obvious reasons. Nainggolan’s goal output vanished, and Salah’s departure was huge. This was the same season where Dzeko began to decline in terms of goal output. The problem Roma have had since Monchi’s arrival, and even after the Spaniard’s time as head of recruitment, is their failure to replace their best assets. The 17/18 season epitomised this perfectly. With Salah, Rudiger, Totti and Parades all departing, finding adequate replacements for them was vital. However, they opted to take 4 low-cost gambles on players, in an attempt to highlight how good Monchi is at finding those diamonds in the rough. Cengiz Under, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Patrik Schick and Rick Karsdorp all arrived for a combined £44.3 million. While the financial risk isn’t bad, there was a lot of pressure on the young players to succeed. It just hasn’t worked out for any of them, with the reliance on the older players still prevalent. Under is arguably the most significant success out of the bunch, with the Turkish winger starting over 15 games in Serie A in each of his two full seasons. While his game time is impressive, considering he was 20 when he arrived, he still has a lot of work to do in regards to development. He’s an average dribbler with a weak shot selection, with Under often going for a spectacular effort over what’s best for the team. The other three have suffered from other problems. Karsdorp has struggled with injuries since day one. Pellegrini just doesn’t seem in favour at the club, and Schick just couldn’t replicate the form he showed at Sampdoria.

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After last season, which saw Di Francesco sacked following a defeat to a relatively weak Porto side in the Champions League and a defeat to arch-rivals Lazio. Monchi shortly followed him out the door, showing how the whole project was a massive failure. This was such a shame because a majority of football wanted to see Monchi work his magic in Italy, and hopefully lead to Juventus’s dominance finally being toppled.

So where do Roma go from here? Well, there have been some optimism in terms of their recruitment. Paulo Fonseca has finally arrived in one of the top leagues. His work with Shaktar earned him plenty of plaudits, getting the best out of their model in discovering some of Brazil’s most promising talents. His arrival coincided with a window full of smart signings and risks. Spinnazola and Zappacosta are reunited since leaving Atalanta and give Roma two attack-minded full-backs with more athleticism than their options in the past. Veretout and Diawara arrive to add even more talent in that midfield. Veretout is a reliable creator with the habit of gathering plenty of yellow cards, while Diawara was once one of the hottest prospects in Italy. He signed for Napoli with the expectation of succeeding Jorginho, but never got the game time required for a young player. This move to Roma could be his best chance at finally playing games, and showing why he was rated so highly at Bologna. These good signings blend well with some intriguing risks. Chris Smalling and Henrikh Mkhitaryan arrive after being pushed out by Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer and Unai Emery respectively. There’s a good chance they’ll fail, but they’re only on loan, meaning their failure wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen.

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It’s difficult to predict how good Roma will be. In an ideal world, all of their signings could work out a top 4 push would be entirely possible. There is still a chance that these risks don’t pan out, and Roma finish behind the Milan clubs once again. Nevertheless, Roma are a team you have to watch this season.

Over-achievers – Inter Milan

Antonio Conte is a fantastic coach and can turn any side into an organised, well-drilled machine. While his Chelsea side did have a very mediocre second season under the Italian, that can primarily go down to a lack of backing in the market. Conte turned two underachievers in Chelsea and Juventus into title winners and some of the best sides their respective leagues have ever seen. I must admit, however, this Inter team is arguably the most challenging task in Conte’s career as of yet. The Nerazzurri have been a mess for years now, due to poor recruitment, which lead to multiple investigations from FFP. My biggest issue with Inter has been the overreliance on their more established talent to drag them over the line. Dalbert, Gagliardini and Keita Balde were all extremely underused last season. Lautaro Martinez did eventually get the game he so very much deserved, primarily down to the controversy surrounding Mauro Icardi.

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The absolutely dreadful signing of Nainggolan and Icardi finally tiring Inter with his drama seemed to have changed Inter. Before the start of the season, Conte made it very clear that the pair of misfits had no future at the club, and had to leave. They did, alongside Miranda, Joao Mario, Perisic, Dalbert and Ansaldi. Many of these players overstayed their welcome, and their departure meant a better and less drama-filled future.

The reason why Inter Milan are my potential over-achievers this season is simply down to the magic of Conte. If Inter do manage to reach the top four, it’ll primarily go down to the Italian. He will fix this Inter side and will find as much value out of many of their less talented players. Inter do not possess the same talent as Juventus, Napoli and arguably their local rivals. However, a good defence can carry you through large chunks of the season.

Under-achievers – AC Milan 

Milan’s summer recruitment was on a whole, impressive. Bennacer, Leao, Hernandez and Duarte highlighted a summer with a focus more on younger talent, with the oldest arrival being Ante Rebic, who’s still only 25. This new focus mixed well with the appointment of Marco Giampaolo. While his league finishes with Sampdoria were slightly underwhelming, his ability to get the best out of young players seemed to be exactly what Milan were looking for. The Italian helped bring the best out of talent like Joachim Andersen, Lucas Torreira, Milan Skriniar and Bruno Fernandes. His Sampdoria side played a more enjoyable brand of football than Gattuso’s Milan, who scored less than Giampaolo’s former club. With the new young arrivals, as well current talent like Piatek, Paqueta, Calabria, Donnaruma and Kessie, this side, if kept together, could be a side to reach those Champions League places once again.

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That is precisely why they’re my under-achievers this season. There is a lot of promise in Milan, but this is definitely a transitional season. It’s all about finding the best system to fit all of their new players. Piatek has to be the player to watch. He has done well since arriving in January but could be taken to the next level under Giampaolo, who managed to get 26 goals out of a very old Quagliarella. He is the key to what Milan do in the next few years. Depending on the performances on the pitch, this could be the start of something big from Europe’s most successful clubs.

Best Transfer – Hirving Lozano

I tweeted back in June that if Napoli did manage to bring Chucky Lozano to Serie A, it would be the signing of the summer. Even though I loved De Ligt’s signing, Lozano is just so perfect for Napoli. Ancelotti’s side were excellent last season, but the weaknesses in their team were becoming apparent. Callejon and Mertens were starting to show their age and right-back still had a massive question mark, even with Malcuit’s impressive form. I wasn’t sold on a majority of Napoli’s business over the summer. The rumours of Milik possibly leaving were confusing considering how good he was last season, and they massively overspent on Kostas Manolas. I mentioned in my preview for Napoli’s season that they were the favourites to sign James Rodriguez. If they did, they’d comfortably be the favourites to challenge Juventus. However, they couldn’t agree on terms with Madrid. Missing out on him was huge and would have taken them onto the next level.

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One benefit or downside depending on how you see it, with Ancelotti is he can give a group of talented players the push they need to succeed. He can quickly devise a system to get the best players into the same team. However, Napoli still wasn’t nearly as good as their final season under Sarri. If they wanted to compete, they needed an elite winger, someone to replace Callejon on the long term, and Lozano fits that profile. The Mexican international was fantastic during his 2 years with PSV, contributing to 50 goals in the Eredivisie. He was a perfect attacker, being able to create and score, while also possessing elite dribbling. He’s such a direct player and represents everything good about Ancelotti’s Napoli side, just like Jorginho did with Sarri’s. 

Potential Flop – Alexis Sanchez

Manchester United’s worst signing of the decade was easily Alexis Sanchez. It wasn’t only his consistently poor performances on the pitch, but the effect he had on the rest of the team. Both Pogba and De Gea wanting pay rises due to their importance to the side, while the best-paid player was sitting on the bench. Sanchez needed to leave for the sake of everyone involved. While United are still paying half of his wages, he has finally departed the club for the season, joining Inter on loan. Sanchez could rediscover the form he showed for over half a decade, with a change scenery being what he needs. However, I’m genuinely not a fan of this move in the slightest. It’s as backwards as PSG signing Mauro Icardi when they made it clear they were done searching for superstars. Sanchez represents everything Inter wanted to change. A superstar with a big ego, who has the potential to be a huge problem. 

UEFA Champions League 18/19 Preview – Group B

Now onto the group of death. Let’s look through by far the toughest group this year.

Barcelona

The La Liga champions go into the tournament as one of the favourites for not only their group, but for the whole tournament. Barcelona have a very good squad, but there are some issues still there. Their midfield is still very old and their over reliance on Busquets is too obvious. That cannot keep happening when Busquets is now 30. He needs to be rested for these games now. Valverde is also a clear weakness. Barcelona won the league because of their tight defense (that seemed to vanish in the last couple of months of the season) and Messi just reminding the world why he is the best around. Valverde did not give their fans the entertaining style seen under Pep and Enrique. But Barcelona have a huge advantage this time around. Coutinho and Dembele will both be eligible for the Champions League, giving them much better options going forward. It’ll mean their best creators can flourish and help them beat teams, like Roma, who played very well defensively. They do have a good of going all the way. But it’s down to Valverde, and if he is able to approach the toucher games with less of a pragmatic way, but they will definitely top this group.

Inter Milan

A return of a European giant. Inter make their first appearance in the Champions League since 2012. They arrive with some very good elements in their team. They have one of the most consistent goal scorers in Europe in Mauro Icardi. They have very good depth in their centre backs in De Vrij, Miranda and Skriniar. They also shockingly signed Sime Vrsaljko on loan from Atletico Madrid. There are good components to a great team here, and will feel very unfortunate to draw the group they did. While I do like their team and Spaletti in charge, I don’t think they are ready to compete with Barcelona and Tottenham just yet. Inter are looking old, with Nainggolan, Miranda, D’Ambrosio, Valero, Candreva and Handanovic all over 30. While they could easily surprise me, the Europa League is where they will end up.

PSV Eindhoven

The Dutch champions come into this group as the weakest team, but still possess the ability to cause some real damage in this group. Unlike Spurs or Inter, PSV are unbeaten so far this season, even beating Willem II by 6 goals to 1. They have some real talented players in their side as well, most notably Hirving Lozano. The Mexican forward has been an instant hit since making his move to Europe, not only contributing to 25 goals in 29 appearances in the Eredivise, but also being a huge bright spark in a Mexico side who shocked the world by beating the world Champions Germany in their opening game in Russia. If PSV are to do anything, they need to make their home advantage count. Spurs’s away record against the top 6 in England is not great, which means that they can be beaten when out of their comfort zone. They have a chance too, but because of the quality of the other teams, they will finish rock bottom.

Tottenham Hotspur

Spurs are in a strange place right now. After beating Manchester United at Old Trafford, they then go and lose to Watford away from home. It shows how Spurs seem to constantly tire themselves out in their big games, and then fail to turn up against lesser teams. This is why they will finish 2nd in this group. While many can question their consistency. It is hard to argue that Spurs fail to turn up when they put their mind to it. They always get ready for the big games, as seen with their wins over Dortmund and Real Madrid last season. League form is irrelevant when discussing this competition, meaning Spurs will probably get through okay. Barcelona are beatable, Inter are still trying to fit in many players, and they have a more talented side than PSV. The only worry is Harry Kane. The golden boot winner has looked so poor at the start of the season. He should not be playing in league games if Spurs want the best out him in the group, because has looked off the pace since his injury back in March. It’ll be a second place finish for the London side.

Final Table

1. Barcelona

2. Tottenham

3. Inter Milan

4. PSV