Systematically, UEFA have made it harder and harder for clubs from smaller countries to make an impression at the top level of the club game. The new format of Champions League qualification, which allows automatic passage for four clubs from Europe’s top four leagues, has squeezed out many of those who looked at continental competition as a lifeline.
There shouldn’t be much scope for a club from Austria to make a mark, but that’s exactly what Red Bull Salzburg have done over the past few seasons. In 2018/19, they reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League, making a run all the way to the semi-finals the season before that. They have become a European force.
This was underlined by the start they made to their Champions League group-stage campaign, emphatically thumping Genk 6-2 in their opening fixture. This has set up the Austrians nicely for a run at the last 16. In a strange twist of fate, they have also been drawn against Napoli, the team that knocked them out of the Europa League last season.
Wednesday will see Salzburg travel to Anfield to take on the reigning European champions. It’s the toughest test they could possibly face at this moment and any sort of positive result would underline the Austrians’ quality. They’re not in the Champions League to make up the numbers.
In fact, Die Mozartstädter have become Europe’s model small club. Their shrewd scouting has paid dividends, with over £65 million collected in transfer fees over the summer and £20m reinvested in young talent like Maximilian Wober and Rasmus Kristensen. Their £4.5 million addition of Erling Haaland earlier this year looks set to pay out at some point, with the teenage striker linked with a number of Premier League clubs.
On the touchline, Salzburg have also acted shrewdly. Marco Rose is now at Borussia Monchengladbach having moved on in the summer, but his successor Jesse Marsch, who arrived from RB Leipzig having also been at the New York Red Bulls before that, is already showing that he can build further on what Rose constructed.
Of course, it helps that they are under the Red Bull umbrella. For some, this might be the ultimate demonstration of how capitalism has engulfed football, but Red Bull Salzburg are more than just a vehicle for a soft drinks brand. They are showing the rest of Europe how to keep themselves at the top when UEFA are so keen to leave them behind.