Red Bull gives wings to the Europa League ambitions of RB Leipzig and Salzburg

Financial backing from the energy drink company has put the German and Austrian clubs on a potential collision course in Europe.

epa06530034 Leipzig's Timo Werner (C) celebrate with teammates during the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 first leg soccer match between SSC Napoli and RB Leipzig at San Paolo stadium in Naples, Italy, 15 Febraury 2018.  EPA/CIRO FUSCO
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It is one of modern advertising’s catchiest slogans. It goes with an energy drink, the one that "gives you wings".

Evidently, a good dose of Red Bull’s strong corporate backing also provides stamina. In European football’s second-best knockout tournament, a pair of bulls from the same breeding stock are showing off their staying power.

RB Leipzig, the upstart German Bundesliga club whose swift transformation from lower-division minnows to muscular top-four contenders has been financed by the Red Bull multinational, defeated the leaders of Serie A, Napoli, in the first leg of their last-32 tie to set up a 3-1 advantage for Thursday night’s return in east Germany.

They had fallen a goal behind with 38 minutes left at the San Paolo, and in the last half an hour of normal time scored twice, adding a third, through leading marksman Timo Werner in stoppage time. With Napoli more attentive to the possible capture of the Italian league title, Leipzig appear to be flying towards the next round.


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There, they could meet their close cousins, Red Bull Salzburg, of Austria, whose eight national league titles in the last 12 years owe plenty to the 2005 takeover of what was then Austria Salzburg by the Red Bull company whose logo emblazons their jerseys.

Their endurance in the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie against Real Sociedad was conspicuous. A stoppage time goal from Japanese striker Takumi Minamino in San Sebastian means they have a 2-2 scoreline to build on in Thursday's home leg.

Red Bull’s football interests are spread far and wide, with clubs under its umbrella in New York, in Brazil and in Ghana, and as the Austrian and German cousins of the family have flexed their muscles more and more powerfully, an anticipated possible meeting between Leipzig and Salzburg in a Uefa competition has looked increasingly inevitable.

That led the governing body of European football to investigate the nature of the clubs’ links and any possible compromise of sporting integrity. They were advised that some alterations needed to be made to their structures. Not long ago, Leipzig and Salzburg shared senior executives.

FC Salzburg's Takumi Minamino, left, celebrates with teammates after scoring his side's second goal of the game during the Europa League round of 32, 1st leg soccer match between Real Sociedad and FC Salzburg, at Anoeta stadium, in San Sebastian, northern Spain, Thursday, Feb.15, 2018. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)
Takumi Minamino, left, after scoring Red Bull Salzburg's late equaliser against Real Sociedad. Alvaro Barrientos / AP Photo

The scrutiny has been passed. Leipzig and Salzburg were cleared to enter the same competitions last summer, when both were preparing for the 2017/18 Uefa Champions League, Uefa deciding that while Red Bull is owner of Leipzig and it is only official the main sponsor of Salzburg, the clubs have sufficient autonomy to play against one another fair and square.

As it happened, Salzburg did not make it through the Champions League qualifying rounds, and so while Leipzig went straight into the group phase draw, having finished second in the German Bundesliga, Salzburg were already in the Europa League last August.

They topped their group, unbeaten; Leipzig finish third in their Champions League pool and so the ambitions of both in Europe focused on the same target again, a Europa League where their respective achievements against clubs from Italy and Spain have served notice of their potential.

Leipzig might go all the way, with a favourable draw and, of course, the right poise on Thursday night. Salzburg are still outsiders, armed with the fearlessness of youth.

Leipzig's Guinean midfielder Naby Keita (L) vies for the ball with Napoli's midfielder Marko Rog during the UEFA Europa league football match between Napoli and Leipzig, on February 15, 2018 at San Paolo stadium in Naples.  / AFP PHOTO / Andreas SOLARO
Midfielder Naby Keita, left, has made the move from Salzburg to Leipzig. He will join Liverpool in the summer. Andreas Solaro / AFP

Nobody should doubt Salzburg have collected and nurtured some fine talent at their well-equipped academy and practice site. The club won the Uefa Youth League last April, beating Barcelona in the semi-final and Benfica in the final.

Their manager for that success, 40-year-old Marco Rose, is now in charge of the first-team and players who he led to junior triumph last year, like strikers Hannes Wolf and midfielder Xaver Schlager, have played significant parts in this season’s Europa League campaign.

The ambitions of footballers like them will certainly extend beyond Austrian club football. Salzburg have gained a fine reputation as a nursery. Sadio Mane, now of Liverpool, matured there, scouted as a teenager in France.

The same backstory applies to Naby Keita, who will joined Liverpool for close to €70 million (Dh316.7m) in the summer. Keita’s emergence as an all-round midfielder combining combative and creative assets is a double Red Bull success story. He went from Salzburg to Leipzig, as did the talented French defender, Dayot Upamecano, just 19.

Their Leipzig are a match for anybody, reckons Maurizio Sarri, the Napoli manager. “I was impressed with their speed and the quality,” he said. “They are exciting and they a pleasure to watch.”

And their Austrian cousins have the same energy. “They are quick to get to loose balls and punish errors,” Real Sociedad manager Eusebio Sacristan said ahead of Thursday's second leg in Salzburg. “It is in the balance for us now.”