The Champions League group stage resumes this week with 16 matches over Tuesday and Wednesday. We aren’t going to cover them all, instead focusing on two matches from each day that are the closest matchups of the week, as well as have the biggest impact on the group tables heading into the homestretch.
As they have been from day one of the Group Stage, Manchester City remains the favorite to win the tournament overall, and have all but won Group C (they have over a 99% chance of claiming first in the group). As we covered last week, they are one of three clubs currently with a perfect record thus far, and a win at home against Atalanta on Wednesday will clinch the group officially.
This week only has two matches where the spread between the two clubs’ chances of winning are less than 10% – Bayer Leverkusen hosting Atletico Madrid is tomorrow – and the match we are previewing here, with Group E leader Napoli playing host to Red Bull Salzburg. Their match kicks off from Stadio San Paolo in Naples, Italy at 9pm CET (3pm EST) on Tuesday night.
As we’ve done previously when previewing group stage matches, we’ll take a look at how the clubs are performing back in their domestic leagues, as well as their longer-term history in UEFA competition. Then, we’ll take a look at the clubs’ history and how this match will determine the group’s outcome.
Without further ado, here’s a look at the clubs:
Domestic League Performance
Napoli is one of the top clubs in Italy, finishing second in Serie A last season behind Juventus. They have finished second in four of the past seven seasons, though they were more recently in Serie B than champions. Their last Serie A title was way back during the 1989-90 season.
Through 11 matches of the current Serie A season, Napoli finds themselves just out of the qualifying positions for European competition, in 7th place behind Lazio on goal differential with 18 points. A 2-1 loss at rival Roma this past Saturday snapped a brief, five-match unbeaten streak that dropped them to this position, but there is still plenty of time for Gli Azzurri to find themselves back near the top of the table.
Red Bull Salzburg was established as SV Austria Salzburg before being purchased by Red Bull GmbH in 2005. They are one of the top clubs in the Austrian Bundesliga, having won thirteen league titles, and have finished in the top two of the league every season since Red Bull purchased the club, with six straight titles and eight of the past ten.
They have yet to lose through 13 matches this season, compiling a 11-2-0 record through this week’s action. They are the only club in Austria to have not lost this season, and have a +41-goal differential at the moment. They are averaging just over four goals per match in league play, led by Norwegian striker Erling Håland and Zambian forward Patson Daka sharing the club lead with 12 goals apiece. Håland also leads the club in scoring during Champions League, netting six goal thus far.
Both clubs were automatic qualifiers for the group stage this year based on their league finishes last season and have long histories in European competition.
Napoli has one European title in their history, a win in the 1988-89 UEFA Cup (now Europa League). RB Salzburg, on the other hand, has not won a European competition, with their best result a runners-up finish behind Inter in the 1993-94 UEFA Cup.
Last season, Napoli finished third behind Liverpool in the group stage in Champions League thanks to a loss on Matchday 6. Their European season ended last year against Arsenal in the semifinals of Europa League. RB Salzburg also lost in Europa League last season, losing to Napoli during the Round of 16.
In this year’s tournament, Napoli currently finds themselves at the top of Group E with seven points and a 2-1-0 record. RB Salzburg, on the other hand, has won only once thus far, a dominant 6-2 over Genk on Matchday 1.
One of Napoli’s two wins in this year’s tournament came three weeks ago in Salzburg, with a goal by Napoli captain Lorenzo Insigne in the 73rd minute providing the winning margin in a 3-2 victory. The Italians hold the advantage in a brief three-match history with the Austrians, compiling a 2-0-1 record including the win three weeks ago.
According to FiveThirtyEight, the home club has the slight advantage in this matchup, with Napoli winning in 44% of simulations. Perhaps because of their dominant performance in league play, or the tight loss on Matchday 3, RB Salzburg wins in 35% of simulations. A draw occurs in 21% of the rest of simulations.
Overall in Group E, defending Champions League champion (and current second place club) Liverpool is the favorite to win the group (60%), though Napoli still has a 32% chance of winning. The top two clubs are also favored to advance through to the Round of 16, with a 94% and 87% chance, respectively.
RB Salzburg is not out of the running officially, and a win in this match could help improve their chances of advancing (currently only 19%) through to the Round of 16. With Liverpool heavily favored to defeat Genk in the other match in the group, RB Salzburg will be eliminated from contention with a loss, and will have to be content with a trip to Europa League – where they are currently favored to win.
With RB Salzburg playing for the Champions League life, expect a hard-fought battle in this one. I agree with the prognosticators’ choice of favoring Napoli, but it might again take some last-minute action for the Blues to come out on top. Failing a massive upset in the other Group E match, a draw might not be enough to extend RB Salzburg’s run this season.
Until next time…