Stealthily creeping across the land has been an incoming flux of club football warmup contests and the lesser seen (yet more important counterparts) Champions League qualifiers. With two rounds already in the books, it is now to the point where teams are starting to become recognizable on a wider scale.
The first round of qualifiers is admittedly small with only four nations included from the bottom of the UEFA national club rankings. Even then, controversy couldn’t seemingly be avoided as they handed out a forfeit loss to Andorran side Santa Coloma because of “bad pitch conditions.”
Should this have been something in the third round? You’d bet your bottom dollar that…alternatives would have been accepted, unlike the case in Andorra. This is a real shame because Coloma had an unbeaten campaign in Andorra (something that no matter the league you just don’t sniff at). Regardless, the winning side (Birkirkara of Malta) were bundled out in the second round.
Blips aside, we sit at the third qualifying round where there is a division in the paths of certain clubs. There is the “Champions Path” of lesser UEFA national clubs and the “Non-Champions Path” for the bigger leagues second and third place squads, thus creating more chances for a more diverse field in terms of nations represented.
While some of the champion sides are still unknowns to most at this point, there are a few notable matchups that should draw attention.
Austrian champion Red Bull Salzburg gets the unwelcome attention of Cypriot kings Omonia Nicosia. In the last two years, Cyprus champions APOEL and Anorthosis Famagusta have crashed the Champions League party and while not exactly competing with the heavy hitters, have at least garnered attention to the tiny island and its football. Salzburg nipped Austria Wien by a point to take the Austrian title but will need to prove that they have sufficiently filled the hole left by lethal scorer Marc Janko.
Belarusians BATE Borisov look to get back into the Champions League but were dealt no favors as the will clash with Denmark champs Copenhagen. The Danes comfortably won the Superliga, though they have sold goalkeeper and unused World Cup sub Jesper Christiansen Elfsborg of Sweeden. Whether or not that plays into the BATE master plan is yet to be seen.
The most anticipated of the Champions side will start in Debrecen when the aforementioned will take on Basel of Switzerland. Debrecen landed themselves into the Champions League last term and while they were the beating stock of Liverpool, Lyon and Fiorentina, were only the second Hungarian side to make it to the group stages. Basel has been a European regular for the last decade and has been a menace to squads in the Europa League and Intertoto Cup. It is certainly a worthy third round qualifier, if maybe not one to get into the group stages.
Meanwhile, there are ten squads who aren’t champions that are paired off to try and claw through the next two group stages and make it to the big dance. These names certainly have more sticker value, though whether or not they fit the billing is questionable at best.
Of the five, Braga and Celtic looks to be the pick of the bunch, assuming Celtic figure out who is actually at the club and playing. Braga fought tooth and nail to hang with Benfica while Celtic…didn’t really hang around all that much with Rangers. While it was six points in the end, Rangers had the title wrapped up long before the final day and Celtic have had to overhaul significantly (considering Gordan Strachan keeps stealing everyone back to Boro).
With the contests happening before most clubs even start their club campaigns, there are a few things to note before you go try and find these contests:
1. Expect some ugly contests (in the 0-0 vain).
2. Expect some ugly contests (in the 3-2 vain).
3. Expect some weird results.
The opening legs commence today and tomorrow.
Sparta Prague (Czech Republic) v. Lech Poznan (Poland)
Litex Lovech (Bulgaria) v. Zilina (Slovakia)
The New Saints (Wales) v. Anderlecht (Belgium)
Omonia Nicosia (Cyprus) v. Red Bull Salzburg* (Austria)
Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine) v. K.A.A. Gent (Belgium)
Unirea Urziceni (Romania) v. Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia)
*Red Bull Salzburg will be referred to as F.C. Salzburg because God forbid that a non-FIFA sponsor get a mention……..
Aktobe (Kazakhstan) v. Hapoel Tel Aviv (Israel)
Sheriff Tiraspol (Moldova) v. Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia)
Debrecen (Hungary) v. Basel (Switzerland)
AIK (Sweeden) v. Rosenborg (Norway)
Partizan Belgrade (Serbia)v. HJK Helsinki (Finland)
BATE Borisov (Belarus) v. Copenhagen (Denmark)
Ajax (Netherlands) v. PAOK (Greece)
BSC Young Boys (Switzerland) v. Fenerbahce (Turkey)
Braga (Portugal) v. Celtic (Scotland)
Tags: Champions League, Soccer