Maccabi Tel Aviv are slated to play FC Red Bull Salzburg in UEFA Champions League playoff first leg action on Tuesday night at Bloomfield Stadium. However, the yellow-and-blue will be shorthanded for the two game series as a number of players and professional staff have contracted the coronavirus throwing the tie in doubt.
Last week, Giorgos Donis’s squad qualified for the Europa League group stages after defeating Dinamo Brest 1-0 on a Dan Bitton penalty. The victory also set up the club up for an opportunity to advance to Champions League, however, the uncertainty surrounding Maccabi’s situation has given the Austrian powerhouse a leg up even before kickoff.
Salzburg has been a mainstay in European football, having participated in the group stages of the Champions League just last season while also featuring in the Europa League group stages eight of the nine years beforehand. The Jerusalem Post spoke to the Austrian football experts from The Other Bundesliga and Jack Brace of Red Bull Hub to help understand what type of challenge Maccabi Tel Aviv will be up against over the next two weeks.
Last season, rising star Erling Haaland was the darling of continent as he graced the pitch for Salzburg, but moved to Germany and Borussia Dortmund this past winter leaving some large shoes to fill. However, the club’s American head coach Jesse Marsch has another pair of youngsters who have stepped up in a big way in 21 year old Patson Daka and Dominik Szoboszlai who is just 19 years of age.
“Daka has stepped up and hasn’t looked back,” explained Brace. “He has become the league’s second highest goalscorer last season and has begun this season with 6 goals in 3 matches, including 4 in 45 minutes against Schwarz-Weiß Bregenz in the cup. Szoboszlai is another player that has become a standout figure in the team and has looked a completely different player post lockdown as he managed to contribute to 19 goals in 11 matches. Maccabi will find him difficult to contend with as he is a very good technician on the ball and has an incredible ability to score from distance, as well as being a set-piece specialist.
The Other Bundesliga agreed, “Daka’s come out of the shadow of Haaland and has definitely become more clinical in front of goal. With more game time he’s grown in confidence from the (almost) shy character that he was when Haaland was around.”
“Daka has become the figurehead in Salzburg’s attack,” said Brace. “He has a great understanding of the game; where he needs to be at the right time and what sort of movement is required to evade the opposition’s defenders. He has gradually become more clinical in front of goal and is capable of producing excellent improvised finishes. Given his speed and improvement in link-up play, if Maccabi allow him too much space, they will be punished.”
“As for Szoboszlai,” continued Brace, “He’s always been a standout talent but at the start of last season at times he would overthink things and not play with the freedom he usually does. During the suspension of the season, he put a lot of work in behind the scenes and it showed on the pitch as he became the player that was expected with him, becoming more involved in matches, and his goals and assists proved instrumental in Salzburg’s seventh consecutive league title win.”
The Other Bundesliga concurred, ”Szoboszlai had a great end of the season last time, and won Bundesliga player of the season based on those last 10 games in which he got a load of goals and assists. He’s got an amazing right foot and he’s desperate to prove himself in the UEFA Champions League after not playing so well in the competition last season.”
The two will cause numerous issues for Maccabi but there is also another up and coming player to keep an eye on said The Other Bundesliga, “Szoboszlai on set pieces and Daka who is a deadly goal poacher for sure are threats, but for an outside bet Sekou Koïta is on hot form right now too, carrying the ball forward dangerously.”
Salzburg also has a veteran experience on their squad in Zlatko Junuzović who starred for many years in Germany & the club’s captain Andreas Ulmer who has been with the outfit since 2009.
“They bring a lot of experience which is very useful to help the young players to gel with the squad. Ulmer gets forward a lot as a full back and still plays well at his age. Junuzovic remains a talisman and can also offer a great threat from free kicks,” expressed The Other Bundesliga.
Brace expanded on what the pair means to Salzburg, “The duo provide much needed experience to a relatively inexperienced team. Despite their ages, they’re two of the most consistent performers on the pitch. Junuzović always seems to be in the right position to break up an opposition’s attack and instigate a counter-attack for Salzburg with an excellent passing range. Ulmer, on the other hand, is an incredible athlete for a 34-year-old and still is constantly bombing up and down the wing, breaking up play and showing his very good passing range to put the forwards in a goalscoring position. Not many players get pass him in a one-on-one, either.”
Head Coach Jesse Marsch took over at the club at the beginning of last season after being an assistant coach at Red Bull Leipzig and the head coach of New York Red Bull. The 46-year old bench boss has received much credit for a job well done after his first campaign in charge explained Brace, “Firstly, Jesse Marsch has done a magnificent job not only on the pitch and behind-the-scene, but he has done very well to change the public perception of him as there were initial protests about his possible appointment as a lot of fans aren’t keen on their ‘connection’ with RB Leipzig.”
“Marsch’s style is what you would expect at a Red Bull club: high pressing, quick turnovers, quick combination plays in tight spaces, and counter-attacking football. At the start of Marsch’s tenure, the pressing was too aggressive at times, albeit effective and resulting in goals, and would lead to frequent defensive errors, if the team wasn’t entirely in unity, and goals conceded. This changed to a more patient approach earlier this year with the team sitting back, cutting off the lines for the centre-backs and midfielders, and limiting the size of the pitch.”
“He tends to play 4-2-2-2 with fast transitions being the key to breaking forward,” The Other Bundesliga added. “Typical Red Bull football. He’s certainly done well since coming in, got through one bad spell to win the league and cup with a record number of goals scored and impressed in the UCL as well which was really what he can be judged on.”
Interestingly enough Salzburg has never won a Champions League playoff tie and actually lost in back to back years to Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv in 2010 and 2011 as the Israeli clubs ended heading to the continent’s top tournament. However, the Austrian team had a very successful run last year in the Champions League after automatically qualifying for the group stages.
“Fans probably feel that the great Champions League campaign last year has shown that they are worthy of a place in the competition once again,” explained The Other Bundesliga. “They’re definitely wary after losing so many times at the Playoff stage and there’s also the fact that they don’t really want to travel to Israel in lockdown, so they’re kind of scratching their heads at the UEFA decision. But overall I think they have confidence in themselves but they’re not taking anything for granted.”
Brace reflected the same views as his counterpart, “From what I am aware of there’s a sense of confidence from the fans that the team should win, given the fact that the team has largely remained the same except from the sale of forward Hwang Hee-chan, but cautious given Salzburg’s unfortunate record in Champions League qualifiers. As you would expect, Jesse Marsch is sitting on the fence and sees Maccabi as a tough opponent.”