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No matter how Tuesday’s Champions League group stage finale turned out for Jesse Marsch and his Red Bull Salzburg, he’d delivered a towering achievement by even positioning his Austrian side for a chance to advance to the knockout stages.
The Austrians were eliminated in a 2-0 home loss to Liverpool on second-half goals from Naby Keita and Mohamed Salah, whose finish from an impossibly tight angle was one of the highlights of the season so far (via Turner Sports):
But that didn’t diminish what Marsch has done.
It’s well-worn by now that Marsch became the first American coach to manage a game in the elite European club competition. He’d worked his way into the job through a career that took him from Bob Bradley’s assistant on the United States men’s national team, to a single season with the Montreal Impact, a long and successful stint with the New York Red Bulls, another gig as assistant with RB Leipzig and, finally, his big chance in Europe with Salzburg.
And you might deride what success he and his team had – two wins and a tie and a chance to reach the next stage with a victory over Liverpool – as the function of the energy drinks giant’s ample resources. You might even point out that Red Bull was Austria’s juggernaut – with six straight league titles and nine in 11 years – long before Marsch came along.
But then Salzburg had never actually made it into the main tournament before. It had qualified automatically, certainly, but it’s nevertheless an exceedingly hard thing to be competitive your first time out. All the more so in a group with Liverpool and Napoli. Because in Europe, it tends not to matter how much money you’ve spent on your team. Everybody else has money too.
Marsch accomplished not only that with an inexperienced team but managed to get a viral video out of it as well. In just Salzburg’s second game, it was down 3-0 to this same Liverpool at halftime when Marsch gave a fiery speech challenging his players not to be awed by Jurgen Klopp’s powerhouse. They summarily roared back to a 3-3 tie, before finally losing.
To make it through to a first-ever knockout stage game, Marsch needed to do better still on Tuesday.
So, predictably, a Red Bull team that had scored and conceded a combined 27 goals in its first five games and needed to score one more goal than the other team, set up for a wide-open match against the defending champions. The home side, which has a strong record at its Red Bull Arena, got off to a feisty start, immediately pressing high and troubling the runaway Premier League leaders with their attacking intent.
But it was the Reds’ Salah who had the first major chance in the fifth minute when he squared up one-on-one with goalkeeper Cican Stankovic. But the Austrian netminder denied the European champions, as he would several times more.
Salah finished wide on an open look and Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino had chances of their own before the intermission. But Red Bull had chances too, like when Hwang Hee-Chan was parried by Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson after an excellent exchange up the middle of the field with Takumi Minamino.
After the intermission, Salah had yet another prime opportunity but missed the target somehow, and after Red Bull’s 19-year-old striker prodigy Erling Haaland shanked his finish into the side netting a little too eagerly, Liverpool finally took the lead it had earned.
In the 57th minute, Andy Robertson received a signature Trent Alexander-Arnold cross-field ball and launched Mane up the left. He beat Stankovic and dinked the ball back for Keita, who had a wide-open header to nod into the net.
Just two minutes later, Salah latched onto a bungled back-pass in the Salzburg defense that caught Stankovic in no-man’s land and rolled his finish into the net.
And then the die was cast as the game turned sloppy and Red Bull was relegated to the knockout rounds of the Europa League.
But his team had made a mark on the Champions League nonetheless. It had finished off an entertaining run with an entertaining game. For the 13 goals it conceded in a half dozen games, Red Bull also scored 16. It played good soccer. It was fun to watch.
In that regard, Marsch had to establish another beachhead for American coaches in Europe, who still face the stigma of being largely unprecedented.
“Pedigree still matters a lot to people in Europe,” Marsch told the Guardian before the game. “A year in the Bundesliga as an assistant and working under Ralf Rangnick [at RB Leipzig] gave me a little bit more to put in my back pocket to go into the next job. It has helped me be better at my job, but it’s also helped the perception of me here.”
Marsch doesn’t see himself as a pioneer. “Sometimes people say, ‘Do you think you're paving the way for the next American coach?’” he told the Wall Street Journal. “I don’t know that I am. There’s still so many hurdles and obstacles that any American coach will have to fight through to get a chance.”
And that’s true enough. But in these six games, in these three months, Marsch has established that he could compete at the highest level with a team that was hardly a given to do so. And so he demonstrated that an American is capable. In that regard, his run was a success, even if he never follows it up.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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