The Champions League group stage draw took place in Monaco last Friday.
Champions Liverpool were drawn in group E alongside Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli, KRC Genk of Belgium and Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg.
Each tie will be interesting for the Reds but in different ways.
Napoli presents a familiarity for Jurgen Klopp and his team. Liverpool also drew the Italian’s in last season’s group phase and were defeated 1-0 in Italy, but — thanks to a toothless Sadio Mane shooting display, Alisson Becker had to become the hero with a brilliant, late save from Arkadiusz Milik. A Mohamed Salah goal and a 1-0 win at Anfield on the final matchday secured the Reds’ passage to the last sixteen.
The K.R.C Genk tie will provide unhappy memories for some Kopites with sharp memories. During Rafael Benitez’s stint as manager at Anfield, the club manufactured an agreement with the Belgian side that would see the Reds have first refusal on players from the Luminus Arena sides fertile academy.
Kevin De Bruyne, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, Thibaut Courtois and Divock Origi are all alumni from Genk’s famed youth system. Although Liverpool did eventually sign Origi, and another youth product from the Belgian’s academy in the shape of Christian Benteke, it was not directly from the four times Belgian league winners, but from Lille and Aston Villa respectively.
Instead, the only player who the Reds exercised their first refusal right on is current Toronto F.C. left-back cum centre half, Chris Mavinga.
The trajectory of Liverpool F.C. could have irreparably changed if the six-times European champions had taken up their option on boyhood supporter De Bruyne. Instead of having a hapless Belgian keeper in the shape of Simon Mignolet, the 18 times champions of England could have had a domineering, excellent operator in his compatriot, Courtois.
However, perhaps the most intriguing ties — at least from a future talent identification perspective — will be games against Salzburg.
As part of the Red Bull football network — which includes, among others, New York and Leipzig, — the Austrians are part of one of the best scouting networks in club football.
Liverpool have benefited from Salzburg’s prescient eye in the transfer market, with Naby Keita and Mane making their first ever big moves in Europe to the Austrian Bundesliga.
Both player’s talents saw them spend comparatively little time in Austria before moving to bigger leagues. Mane spent a two-season, 31 league goal-scoring spell at the Red Bull Arena before joining Southampton in 2014. The Senegalese star was key performer for the English South Coast team and his departure to join The Reds in 2016 was a catalyst for the club’s recent resurgence.
Keita, meanwhile, represented the 13 times Austrian champions for two seasons before moving to their sister club in the German Bundesliga, Leipzig. The Guinean spent a further two season’s in Germany, performing to such a high level that Liverpool were content to wait a year to sign the midfielder after agreeing on a deal.
Unsurprisingly, Salzburg’s current squad is laden with talent that could be of interest to many top clubs, not least the defending European Champions.
Dominik Szoboszlai, a physically imposing 18-year-old Hungarian midfielder, is a player that will move the scouting needle across the continent.
Standing 6’1″ and with a penchant for long shots — especially from free kicks — the youngster scored 16 goals from midfield for Liefering, a feeder club in the Austrian second division, in the 2017/2018 season.
Prior to the German signing for Bayern Munich, Liverpool were reportedly interested in the signature of Leon Goretzka from Schalke. Szoboszlai, in terms of a rounded skillset and physical, make up, is a similar profile of player to the rangy German and this is clearly a valued player template in the scouting corridors of Anfield.
Erling Braut Håland, the son of former Leeds United midfielder, Alfie- Inge, joined the Austrians this past summer from Norwegian club, Molde.
In just five Austrian Bundesliga games to date, the Norwegian powerhouse has notched seven goals and three assists. The 6’4″ 19-year-old holds an U20 World Cup record, as he scored 9(nine) goals in Norway’s 12-0 shellacking of Honduras in the summer of 2019.
Wherever the Leeds born striker has played, he has plundered goals at an excellent rate. In the season Håland spent in the Norwegian top division with Molde, he scored 14 goals in 39 appearances.
With such a bountiful scoring rate, the young Norwegian is sure to have plenty of admirers and there’s no reason for Liverpool not to be one of those clubs.