City, PSG still 'big challenges' for Leipzig

LONDON • Derided by opposition fans for trampling over German football traditions, RB Leipzig find themselves in the unusual position of not being cast as the bad guys as the Champions League's "group of death" kicks off today.

Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain will cross swords again in Group A with both projects backed by oil-rich Gulf kingdoms still chasing a first European Cup.

Amid the fallout of falling revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic shutting stadiums for over a year and the failure of the European Super League project, Abu Dhabi-owned City and Qatar-backed PSG have been the big winners.

Uninhibited by the loss of gate receipts and encouraged by the easing of Uefa Financial Fair Play regulations, they are the new power couple of European football, much to the anger of many of the continent's traditional powers.

PSG have reunited Lionel Messi with Neymar and shunned Real Madrid's reported €180 million (S$285 million) bid for Kylian Mbappe despite the striker free to enter pre-contract negotiations with other clubs in January.

Gianluigi Donnarumma, Georginio Wijnaldum and Achraf Hakimi also arrived at the Parc des Princes during the transfer window, with PSG set to ease past Belgian champions Club Brugge in today's away opener. Messi is in line for his first start for the French giants, alongside Neymar and Mbappe, which would mark their maiden start as an attacking trio.

City broke the English record to land Jack Grealish for £100 million (S$186 million), leading La Liga president Javier Tebas to complain on Twitter about "club states" and how they were "as dangerous for the ecosystem of football as the Super League".

Backed by energy drink giants Red Bull, Leipzig are another example of new money ruffling the feathers of the established powers.

But unlike City or PSG, they have yet to win a major trophy in their history and remain deeply unpopular in Germany for having navigated around the so-called "50+1" rule in place to prevent any individual having a majority controlling stake in a Bundesliga club.

Red Bull, founded by Austrian billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz, owns 49 per cent, with the remaining 51 owned by company employees.

"RB Leipzig are a pure marketing project. Created solely to strengthen the Red Bull brand," said football magazine 11 Freunde.

Their money, however, was not enough to prevent German champions Bayern Munich from raiding the club in the summer, with coach Julian Nagelsmann and key players Dayot Upamecano and Marcel Sabitzer switching sides.

Leipzig beat PSG in the group stage last season on their way to reaching the last 16 at Manchester United's expense and reached the semi-finals the previous term.

But expectations at shocking one of the two favourites for the competition this time are limited ahead of their trip to City today.

Under new coach Jesse Marsch, last season's Bundesliga runners-up have lost three of their first four league games, and look a shell of the side under Nagelsmann, especially after they were thrashed 4-1 by Bayern over the weekend.

"Maybe we're not ready for such big challenges," admitted Marsch, on the prospect of facing City.

"But no matter, we have to stay strong and believe in the process."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2021, with the headline 'City, PSG still 'big challenges' for Leipzig'. Subscribe