Liverpool’s defence of their Champions League crown begins 9 days from now at Stadio San Paolo in Naples.
From record signings to new managers and the son of a 1990s football icon, here’s what to expect from all three of the Reds’ Group E opponents.
Come a week on Tuesday, Liverpool’s travelling support will have swung by Vesuvius, Capri and the Bay of Naples twice in less than a year.
In fact, if you include friendlies, by the time Group E concludes Napoli and the Reds will have played one another six times in the space of 16 months, Jürgen Klopp’s side having eliminated Gli Azzurri from the Champions League group stage on goals scored last season.
With the same coach and largely the same squad, Carlo Ancelotti’s team are operating with a great deal of continuity this term as they aim to overhaul Juventus in Serie A and make it past the Champions League group stage for the first time since 2016-17.
Stars such as Kalidou Koulibaly, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne are now complemented by Kostas Manolas, Eljif Elmas, Fernando Llorente and Giovanni Di Lorenzo, not to mention record signing Hirving Lozano – a Mexican forward purchased from PSV Eindhoven in August.
One thing that certainly seems unlikely, given Napoli’s start to the campaign so far, is a reprise of last season’s 1-0 results at Anfield and the San Paolo.
The Vesuviani won 4-3 away to Fiorentina on Serie A’s opening weekend before a breathtaking defeat by the same scoreline away to Juve last weekend. New boys Manolas, Lozano and Di Lorenzo all found the net against Juve as the visitors went from 3-0 down to 3-3 in the space of 18 minutes, only to concede an agonising Koulibaly own goal in stoppage-time.
“It’s better than last year, but still a difficult group,” Ancelotti said following the draw, making reference to last season’s group, which also contained Paris Saint-Germain and Red Star Belgrade. “We are confident.”
For Salzburg, the hope is that the Champions League group stage proves to be worth the long wait.
Eliminated during the qualifying phase in each of the last six seasons, the 13-time Austrian champions finally found a direct route into the tournament this year courtesy of the Austrian Bundesliga’s coefficient.
That hoodoo of the qualifiers shouldn’t blind anyone to the threat posed by a club that has won 11 domestic honours in the last five years and consistently impressed in the Europa League, however.
Under previous coach Marco Rose, Salzburg reached the semi-finals of UEFA’s secondary club competition in 2017-18. That run included a remarkable come-from-behind 6-5 aggregate win over Lazio. They also defeated Celtic home and away the following season en route to the round of 16, where they were knocked out by Napoli.
Rose left for Borussia Monchengladbach in the summer, and the loss of a 37-goal striker – Moanes Dabour, now of Sevilla – could also have been a heavy blow. But Salzburg’s much-admired recruitment strategy has ensured a seamless transition thus far under new boss Jesse Marsch. The 22 goals they have netted in their first five league fixtures set a new Austrian Bundesliga record.
Sadio Mane and Naby Keita both spent two of their formative years at the talent factory that is the Stadion Salzburg, where the latest next big thing appears to be Norwegian striker Erling Haaland, son of former Manchester City midfielder Alf-Inge.
The 19-year-old has notched 11 goals in seven games so far this campaign, underpinning his club’s flawless start in league and cup.
“It’s an incredible group, we have really good opponents, and I am really looking forward to playing Liverpool in particular,” Marsch commented after the draw was made. “They are a great team and it will be a big challenge for us.”
Long-serving defender Andreas Ulmer, meanwhile, is looking forward to a reunion. “I’ve been watching Sadio and Naby on television,” he said. “And I am pleased that I will be able to see them again in Salzburg.”
Genk are renowned for a youth system that has churned out Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois, Christian Benteke and a certain Divock Origi among many others this century.
But they are well capable of upsetting Belgian football’s traditional powers, Anderlecht and Club Brugge, from time to time, as the Blauw-Wit did last May to win the fourth league title in their history.
Since then, Genk have lost the coach who pulled off that triumph, Philippe Clement, to Brugge, while influential midfielders Leandro Trossard and Ruslan Malinovskyi have moved on to Brighton & Hove Albion and Atalanta respectively.
Last term’s top scorer Mbwana Samatta remains, though, and the club from the eastern Belgian province of Limburg have made a solid start so far under Clement’s successor Felice Mazzu. They sit two points off the top of First Division A after six matchdays.
Of the seven new signings made this summer, the most eye-catching is surely Ianis Hagi. Son of legendary playmaker Gheorghe Hagi, the 20-year-old midfielder arrived from Viitorul Constanta in July after emerging as one of the outstanding performers at the summer’s U21 Euros, where he scored in Romania’s 4-2 group-stage win over England.
“We want to show ourselves in the Champions League, we have to believe in ourselves and believe we are able to get points,” Mazzu said. “Otherwise there is no reason to go.”
Fortunately for Klopp, he already has an expert scout close at hand in the form of Origi, who spent nine years with Genk before joining Lille in 2010.
“When we were walking off the pitch from training I immediately spoke with Divock about playing Genk!” laughed the German on the day the draw was made. “We will do our analysis and research on all three teams, but we know they all played exceptional seasons last year.”