When Michel Platini drew up a new structure for Champions League qualifying, more shocks and more big games looked to be on the cards. As was so often the case in Platini’s playing career, the Frenchman’s tactic has come up with the goods, as Arsenal and Celtic will testify to, when they do battle tonight.
In years gone by, qualifying often presented viewers with a procession of predictable matches, as Europe’s big boys casually swatted aside an assortment of minnows from across the continent. However times are changing and the inaugural play-off stage has thrown up a ‘battle of Britain’ contest. The first leg sees Arsenal travel to Hampden Park, where they will face a Celtic side full of confidence after an impressive victory over Dinamo Moscow.
The Scottish giants fought back from a 1-0 home defeat to take the tie 2-1, courtesy of a first away victory in Europe since 2003. Arsenal meanwhile, got their domestic campaign off to a flying start with a 6-1win away to Everton and their manager, Arsene Wenger, is hoping to silence another home crowd.
“The atmosphere is always heated in Scotland,” said Wenger.
“If we play well we can keep the atmosphere low-key and that is all down to our performance.”
Elsewhere, there are more tough ties to call in Portugal and Greece as Sporting Lisbon take on Fiorentina and Panathinaikos play host to Athletico Madrid. All four teams have high expectations for the coming season and will be desperate not to miss out on the lucrative group stage.
As far as potential shocks go, this years edition of the Champions League has every chance of featuring some new names. FC Sheriff are bidding to become the first ever Moldovan side to reach the group stage, following a historic victory over Slavia Prague. They had never progressed beyond the second round of qualifying before but will fancy their chances of another famous win tonight as they host Olympiacos.
Cypriot champions APOEL also have an excellent chance of making a name for themselves after being pitted against FC Copenhagen. Domestic rival’s Anorthosis Famagusta impressed many people last season, after becoming the first ever Cypriot side to reach the Champions League proper and it’s a safe bet APOEL will be keen to follow in their footsteps.
By Josh Allen