Big guns Chelsea and AC Milan will progress to the last 16, but they can’t afford to underestimate Salzburg and Dinamo Zagreb, writes Rachel Roberts.Embed from Getty Images
Seven-time winners Milan are giants of this competition, but have been through a period in the wilderness in recent years. They suffered an eight-year absence from the Champions League between the 2013/14 campaign and their return last season, when they were knocked out of the ‘group of death’ containing Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and Porto. This year they enter Group E as Serie A champions, and will have a strong belief they can progress further this year, although they’ll be fully focused on the crunch Milan derby this weekend before turning their attention to Tuesday’s opener against Salzburg.
Over the summer they acquired the services of the highly sought-after 21-year-old Charles De Ketelaere from Club Brugge, who scored 18 goals in all competitions last season and whose youth offers a more dynamic option up front, compared to the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Olivier Giroud. Further additions include Champions League winner Divock Origi from Liverpool, who is a notorious threat from the bench. Though Milan will hope the departure of key midfielder Franck Kessie to Barcelona will not be too much of a loss, this combination of experience and youthful talent that includes Serie A Player of the Season Rafael Leao, means Milan’s chances of advancing from this group look promising.Embed from Getty Images
Chelsea will be looking to repeat the success they found in the Champions League in 2020/21, when manager Thomas Tuchel led the London side to their second title in Europe’s elite competition, beating English rivals Manchester City 1-0 in the final. Last season the German boss took his team to the quarter-finals, where they were beaten 5-4 on aggregate by Real Madrid, as part of the Spanish side’s dramatic run to becoming eventual winners. The last few months have been turbulent off the pitch, but the Blues finished third in the Premier League to book their spot in Group E.
This summer has seen Chelsea become one of the highest spenders in Europe. After the departures of Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen, they have bolstered their defence in signing Marc Cucurella for £60million and spending £33m on Kalidou Koulibaly. Forwards Timo Werner and Romelu Lukaku have, perhaps disappointingly, both returned to the clubs they were signed from, namely RB Leipzig and Inter Milan. Raheem Sterling and deadline-day signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have arrived up front instead, and their ability to link up with Kai Havertz and Mason Mount will be key to a winning these games. Such investment carries pressure to deliver, but Chelsea’s early league form has been patchy. Although they have the quality to finish top, they need to find consistency in their performances to be comfortable in this group.Embed from Getty Images
After 13 seasons competing in play-off and qualifying rounds, Salzburg finally reached the group stages of the Champions League in the 2019/20 campaign, and they certainly made an impression once they arrived. In a group with Liverpool and Napoli, a then-19-year-old Erling Haaland first announced his arrival on the European scene, scoring eight goals in six games under then-boss Jesse Marsch. Though both player and manager are now in the Premier League, Salzburg have maintained their status as a Champions League side, qualifying each year since their debut.
Last season they exited at the round of 16, losing 8-2 on aggregate to Bayern Munich, and have since lost Brenden Aaronson to Leeds, and striker Karim Adeyemi to Dortmund. However, their bright spark this campaign is promising teen sensation Benjamin Sesko. Though this is only his second full season at the top level, he was prolific on loan in Austria’s second division and his age in combination with the lack of expectation on Salzburg in this group, should mean Sesko can play with a freedom that should produce quality performances. Though they are unlikely to reach the round of 16 at either Chelsea or Milan’s expense, the Red Bulls can really threaten their opponents in Group E.Embed from Getty Images
All the way from the second qualifying round, Zagreb sealed their spot in this year’s Champions League beating Bodo/Glimt 4-2 after extra time in a play-off tie. In their last outing at Europe’s elite level, in the 2019/20 season, they finished bottom of their group which contained Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk and Atalanta.
Croatian league champions, this is their sixth group stage appearance this century, but they have gone further in the Europa League, reaching the quarter-final stage in 2020/21 when they were knocked out by Villarreal. Along the way, they memorably knocked out Tottenham in the previous round, overcoming a two-goal deficit to beat Jose Mourinho’s side 3-2 on aggregate, thanks to local boy Mislav Orsic’s hat-trick. The striker was Zagreb’s top scorer last season, with 19 goals in all competitions, and his performances will be critical if Zagreb are to win points against their rivals in Group E.Embed from Getty Images
Must-watch game: Milan v Chelsea
As the two biggest names in this group, both fixtures between Milan and Chelsea will be must-watch ties, as they are almost certain to be in direct battle for the top spot. With their recent glory in the Champions League and the pressure to deliver that comes with large amounts of spending, the Blues will need to start their campaign by dominating this group. For the Milan fans who will feel their side are finally back where they belong, the draw of Group E presents them with a great opportunity to progress, and they will be sure to give Chelsea a hostile welcome at the San Siro in October.
Tuesday, September 6: Dinamo Zagreb v Chelsea, 5.45pm; Salzburg v Milan, 8pm
Wednesday, September 14: Milan v Dinamo Zagreb, 5.45pm; Chelsea v Salzburg, 8pm
Wednesday, October 5: Salzburg v Dinamo Zagreb, 5.45pm; Chelsea v Milan, 8pm
Tuesday, October 11: Dinamo Zagreb v Salzburg; Milan v Chelsea, both 8pm
Tuesday, October 25: Salzburg v Chelsea, 5.45pm; Dinamo Zagreb v Milan, 8pm
Wednesday, November 2: Chelsea v Dinamo Zagreb; Milan v Salzburg, both 8pm
Dangerman: Benjamin Sesko
Salzburg striker Sesko is only 19 years old, but has been drawing comparisons to Erling Haaland for his abilities at such a young age. He signed for the Austrian side aged 16 having scored goals for fun at age group level, and was immediately sent on loan, gaining experience in the lower Austrian leagues. There, he continued his prolific form with 21 goals in 29 appearances in the 2020/21 campaign, before returning to Salzburg last season. As a number nine with serious quality in the air, it will be fascinating to see what he can achieve in this group and whether, like Haaland, this will be his moment to make his mark on the glittering European stage.
Finishing place predictions: 1. Chelsea, 2. Milan, 3. Salzburg, 4. Dinamo Zagreb
With the quality of the two teams, it seems inevitable that Chelsea and Milan will reach the last 16, with the Blues having the edge to secure top. Salzburg promise enough threat to really test both Milan and Chelsea, especially in Austria, but lack the depth in quality that their opponents possess to be able to progress. It feels almost a foregone conclusion that Zagreb will finish their Champions League campaign in fourth, but the Croatian side do have experience in toppling Premier League opposition. Neither Chelsea nor Milan can take anything for granted.
Follow Rachel on Twitter @rachellrobertts