News Matches
African All Stars

Champions League: Ambitious Osimhen’s tussle with Salah leads African storylines as Napoli face Liverpool

8:36 PM WAT 05/09/2022
20220905 Osimhen Salah
The Italian club are rekindling their European rivalry with the Reds in the opening matchday of the 2022-23 campaign

Not long has passed since Real Madrid were celebrating in Paris at Liverpool’s expense, ending the Reds’ dream of a seventh European crown.

That 1-0 success in May thwarted Mohamed Salah’s intention to right the wrongs of that ill-famed 2018 final where he suffered a shoulder injury and was forced off after half an hour.

Indeed, the Liverpool forward’s failure to score on the night was certainly not for the want of trying.

The Reds out-shot Los Blancos 24-4, hitting more shots on target than the Spanish giants—9-2.

Salah’s six efforts on target was a game-high, but the Liverpool marksman found Thibaut Courtois in inspired form.

Fast forward three months and Jurgen Klopp’s men begin their 2022-23 European journey against another familiar adversary. While Napoli certainly lacks the glamour of Carlo Ancelotti’s crew or Real’s rich continental history, Salah may equally go into Wednesday’s clash with a score to settle with the Partenopei.

The Serie A side square up with the Reds on their return after a two-year absence from the competition targeting another scalp of the Merseyside club in matchday one.

Liverpool found out lightning does strike twice in the same place following group stage defeats by Napoli in 2018 and 2019 — losing 1-0 and 2-0 respectively — and Klopp’s men look to prevent a third consecutive defeat in Naples.

Key to thwarting the Reds’ plans is Victor Osimhen, likely to make his Champions League debut for the club if he recovers from a knock that forced him to train alone on Monday.

An appearance will mark a return to Europe’s premier club competition since featuring for Lille in a 2-0 defeat by Ajax in November 2019.

The tenacious Nigeria international can be a force on his day but an absence of goals in the last three Serie A games means the young frontman is not firing on all cylinders at the moment. This has not been due to a dearth of chances, though, but rather a drop-off in the Super Eagle’s quality in front of goal against Lecce and Lazio and having a goal at Fiorentina chalked off.

Luciano Spalletti’s in-form forward is the hitherto devastating Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, whose start to life in Naples means Lorenzo Insigne’s absence has not been felt, while Andre Zambo Anguissa has continued where he left off last season.

The Cameroon midfielder has already set up two goals in five league games — including the winner for the 2-1 success at Lazio — matching his assists return in 2021-22, which would please Spalletti who demanded more involvement from the motoring Anguissa last season.

Salah and Osimhen are the star attraction heading into Wednesday’s meeting but neither is currently at their goalscoring best.

The Liverpool man has accumulated Expected Goals (xG) of 1.6 since his last Liverpool goal at Manchester United whereas the Napoli man’s xG since scoring in the 4-0 rout of Monza is 1.4.

Spalletti’s crew look to emulate the Italian side’s successes against Klopp’s men in the late 2010s, and their strong start to the campaign and the Reds’ erratic displays mean they have a fighting chance.

The other fixture in Group A sees Calvin Bassey do battle with old friends when Ajax host Rangers on their first return to the Champions League in 12 years, with Fashion Sakala likely to be in the ‘Gers squad for the fixture.

Matchday one throws up an interesting encounter in Group H, where Achraf Hakimi and his Paris Saint-Germain colleagues look to test their perceived improvement against Juventus.

The wide defender has looked reborn in a wing-back role under Christophe Galtier, providing a menace down the flank facilitated by PSG’s in-form attacking triumvirate of Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Lionel Messi.

Indeed, they are favourites in Paris against Massimiliano Allegri’s troops who are all about winning — which they have not done much of lately — rather than worrying over pleasing observers.

Group B pits Atletico Madrid with Porto yet again with critics probably recollecting last season’s encounters that produced three dismissals. Geoffrey Kondogbia has been out of Diego Simeone’s XI in all but one game this season but started seven games in last year’s competition.

Reinildo Isnard Mandava has played every minute in La Liga this term and is likely to continue in the line-up when Zaidu Sanusi and his colleagues seek a positive start at Wanda Metropolitano.

Edmond Tapsoba may have been linked with a move away from Bayer Leverkusen, but the centre-back stayed with the Bundesliga side who return since the 2019-20 season.

The German outfit are away at Club Brugge, where Denis Odoi leads an African continent comprising Kamal Sowah, Raphael Onyedika, Clinton Mata and Abakar Sylla who will back themselves this year after last season’s group stage draw pit them with Manchester City, PSG and RB Leipzig.

Bayern Munich and Barcelona rekindle what has been a one-sided rivalry in recent years in Group C, although Inter Milan will back themselves to disrupt predictions of the former pair going through.

Sadio Mane has had a decent-to-good start in Bavaria and the Senegal superstar will hope to start his first Champions League campaign away from Anfield on a strong note when they travel to San Siro, where it remains to be seen if Andre Onana will be favoured in Europe at Samir Handanovic's expense.

In the other game, Franck Kessie could make his European debut for Barca against a Viktoria Plzen side predicted to end fourth in the draw. All three of the Ivory Coast midfielder’s appearances in La Liga have been off the bench, suggesting it could be more of the same unless Xavi rotates his side.

Yves Bissouma could make his Champions League debut when Tottenham Hotspur play host to Olympique Marseille in Group D, a game that sees Eric Bailly and Chancel Mbemba return to England, while Cedric Bakambu and Issa Kabore could play in some capacity.

The other fixture in what could be the tightest group of the lot sees Abdul Fatawu Issahaku’s Sporting Lisbon travel to last year’s Europa League winners Eintracht Frankfurt.

Chelsea’s African contingent comprises Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Edouard Mendy, Kalidou Koulibaly and Hakim Ziyech, with all four expected to play varying roles when Thomas Tuchel’s unrecognisable outfit feature against Dinamo Zagreb.

Ismael Bennacer’s AC Milan are tipped to be major contenders with the West London side for finishing top, but the threat posed by a Red Bull Salzburg side cannot be underestimated.

RB Leipzig may have faced an uphill battle drawing Pep Guardiola’s side and PSG last season but will fancy their prospects in Group E with defending champions Real Madrid the only side superior this term.

Amadou Haidara and the recently acquired Abdou Diallo do battle with Shakhtar Donetsk this week, with the threat of the returning Celtic — back in the competition since 2017-18 — not to be played down.

The final group containing Manchester City, Sevilla, Borussia Dortmund and Copenhagen has plenty of African representation.

Riyad Mahrez headlines the contingent in Group G, while Youssef En-Nesyri and Yassine Bounou ply their trade with the La Liga giants.

Taiwo Akinkunmi could make his Champions League debut for the Danish side at Dortmund, while countryman Paul Mukairu and Senegal centre-forward Khouma Babacar could play in varying capacities this week.

The Champions League is back and this year’s compressed group stage is expected to throw up a succession of curveballs with Africa’s finest exports playing central roles in Europe’s esteemed club competition. Watch this space.