Salzburg’s Champions League dream ends but Austrian upstarts still deliver on big night – Alex Richards

Salzburg’s Champions League dream ends but Austrian upstarts still deliver on big night – Alex Richards


The message from the Red Bull Salzburg supporters was made crystal clear by the glistening blue and white banner draped along the NordKurve pre-game at the Red Bull Arena.

“We are not Barca or Real. But we are ready for our f** dream! This is Salzburg!”

Jesse Marsch’s side had already performed above expectation in the Champions League, having finally qualified for the group stage after a series of painful near misses in recent years.

And their victory in Belgium against Genk last time out ensured they would be playing European football after Christmas, regardless of the result against the reigning Champions League holders.

But in a game that some fans had dubbed the biggest in the club’s history – whether in their current guise, or previously as SV Austria Salzburg – in the home of Mozart, there was never any interest in going out quietly.

Head coach Marsch, himself bidding for history as he sought to become the first American to lead a side into the Champions League knockout stages, had spoken of this game as an opportunity, there to be grasped.

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Salzburg couldn’t produce the upset – but did themselves proud

Of his young side, the 46 year-old who admits he doesn’t like dropping “F-bombs”, asked his own pre-match question: “How f******* good can we be!?”

At a rocking Red Bull Arena, he received his answer.

For 55 minutes they matched their illustrious visitors, standing toe-to-toe with the six-time European champions.

Spurred on by an enthusiastic home crowd, they attacked with gusto, speed and invention.

Unfortunately, not all dreams are meant to come to fruition.

And when all was said and done, the team that may dominate the Austrian Bundesliga and has a youth system widely admired across the continent showed why it is still very much a finishing school for Europe’s biggest leagues and clubs.

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Liverpool booked their place in the last 16

“I couldn’t have more respect for what Salzburg are doing, the way they play football, declared Jurgen Klopp post-match. “Massive respect for Jesse and what they did.”

Indeed, there was much to admire about Marsch’s sides’ work between both penalty boxes, lots of smart combination play and fluid football from a team that doesn’t lack for character.

But in the two defining areas of the field, they came up just short.

In attack, Hee-Chan Hwang and Ering Haaland both squandered good chances. In defence, they gave up too many opportunities and as they ran out of steam, having given so much early on, they were fortunate not to concede four or five.

Two goals in a minute proved the difference, ex-Salzburg stars Sadio Mane and Naby Keita combining, the latter ultimately heading home, before Mo Salah put the game beyond doubt, scoring from an acute angle with the most difficult of his six chances on the night. Both came after decisions from Cican Stankovic to run from his goal when perhaps more restraint was required.

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“We played with great confidence against one of the best teams in the world,'” admitted Marsch.

“The players are disappointed because they played very well. The level of this game was incredible and in the first half many people think we were the better team. So this is something we should cherish.”

Ultimately, on this freezing cold December night, it wasn’t quite enough against an elite side – perhaps the best in Europe right now.

However, when the Europa League rolls around in less than three months time, don’t sleep on Salzburg.

“The Europa League is great for our development,” believed Marsch. “We can win, if we play like this, as we have the quality.

Their first foray into the Champions League ‘proper’ may have ended, but as is the way at the club with such a focus on youth development, there’s certainly more to come.





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