By Luke James.
In the end, it was a Diego Simeone masterclass that ended Red Bull Salzburg’s hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League.
Atleti, themselves at risk of falling into the Europa League at the start of matchday six, dispatched of the Austrian champions clinically on Wednesday evening, scoring either side of half-time to eliminate Salzburg.
The match typified the contrast between the sides.
Salzburg, renowned for their style of play under Jesse Marsch, were a constant threat, racking up 18 shots and the lion’s share of possession.
Dominik Szoboszlai was presented a wonderful opportunity to level the score four minutes after the break but dragged his shot narrowly beyond the bottom right corner. Ten minutes later, Patson Daka failed to convert an equally promising chance from the edge of the six-yard box.
Outside of those moments, it was the three-time finalists from Madrid who controlled the match. Simeone’s side demonstrated consummate patience in defence, forcing the hosts into wide areas whenever possible.
As the match wore on, the outcome became increasingly predictable. The Spanish league leaders, pioneers in defence, upheld a slim edge over their Austrian rivals. That fine margin was enough to secure Atleti a spot in the last sixteen, but should not be used to drive a wedge between Salzburg and the praise they deserve.
At full time, Salzburg defensive midfielder Zlatko Junuzovic said: “It’s disappointing, of course, as we were really the better team.
“Atletico got the goals though, which shows how clever they are. We keep on trying and playing forward – everyone got fully stuck in.
“Well done to the team though, as it was still fun. We have played superbly in the Champions League. We have to take the positives from it.”
Marsch’s side, drawn into the second-most difficult group to qualify from, played without fear against two of the best sides on the continent. The Austrians’ only disappointing result came in the first round of fixtures against Lokomotiv Moscow when they drew 2-2 at home.
A trip to the Wanda Metropolitano ended in a 3-2 defeat, followed up with back-to-back losses against European champions Bayern Munich.
A swashbuckling 3-1 victory in Moscow set up this week’s win-or-die clash against Atleti — a contest which could have ended differently had one of Salzburg’s rising stars found a way to beat Jan Oblak.
Despite this defeat against Simeone’s side, Salzburg have been ever-impressive in the Champions League this season.
Amid mounting speculation about his future, Hungarian international Szoboszlai played a pivotal role in Salzburg’s push for the knock-out rounds. The former Videoton youth prospect, now Europe’s most heavily-touted rising star, used every part of his 6ft 1in frame to illustrate why there is so much interest in activating his release clause in January.
Szoboszlai drifted magnificently against Atleti, popping up between the lines to provide a constant outlet for his teammates. The Hungarian’s end product was lacking against the La Liga titans but it wasn’t for want of trying.
The same criticism cannot be levelled at Zambia international Enock Mwepu, the 22-year-old’s passing was sublime. 23-year-old right-back Rasmus Kristensen also put in a commendable performance on both sides of the transition.
The very nature of the beast in Salzburg is that the club’s best players will come and go, the Red Bull model dictates as such. However, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Marsch’s side as they enter the second half of the season.
Even if Szoboszlai leaves the club as expected, RB Salzburg have a wealth of talent they can call upon in his place. 2002-born Karim Adeyemi and 2000-born Noah Okafor have the world at their feet and the trust of their increasingly well-respected American head coach. The Red Bull talent conveyor belt will continue to churn.
Furthermore, Marsch is the best export American soccer has to offer in 2021. The former USMNT midfielder burst onto the scene as the head coach of the New York Red Bulls and his stock has risen ever since.
Three factors make the MLS graduate such an alluring prospect in the dugout.
First, Marsch has thrown himself into life in Europe — as typified by his infamous half-time team talk against Liverpool last term.
Second, the former Chicago Fire and Chivas USA player has shown himself to be tactically astute as a manager.
Even against the defensive might of Atletico Madrid, Salzburg were dangerous and created the two highest xG chances of the night.
Finally, Red Bull players are willing to run through walls for the Wisconsin native.
For most sides of Salzburg’s quality, an early exit from the Champions League would come as an indictment against their coach. In Marsch’s case, it presents an opportunity to showcase his side against winnable opposition in the Europa League.
Even in defeat, this Salzburg team are impressive. And they show no signs of slowing down.
“We represented our style of football well against top-level opponents,” Marsch told reporters at the Red Bull Arena.
“Of course, we are disappointed now, but we are every bit as proud. We lacked a little resoluteness at both ends, and we faced two of the world’s best goalkeepers in this group.
“We have played simply incredible football though. I could not have asked any more of these guys.”
Atleti move on in the Champions League but the hype surrounding Salzburg’s coach and players will continue to burn brightly. Despite Red Bull’s elimination, the Salzburg project will continue to gain speed.