This Tuesday and Wednesday, clubs from around Europe will be competing in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League play-off matches as they hope to take a giant step into the Group Stage of the tournament that kicks off next month.
The 10 winners of these playoff round ties, five from each route, will automatically join the 22 entrants in the Champions League group stage draw. The 10 losing teams will be entered into the UEFA Europa League group stage draw.
Here are previews of each of the matchups:
FK Astana v APOEL Nicosia
The Cypriot champions APOEL face an inexperienced Astana, who have never reached the group stages of European competition. APOEL have qualified for the Champions League group stages three times in the last six seasons and should progress again this season. Goals could be an issue as APOEL saw both last season’s top goalscorer Rafik Djebbour and Irish striker Cillian Sheridan leave in the transfer window. Argentine attacking midfielder Tomás De Vincenti is the main threat with four goals in two qualifying matches this season.
Kazakh side Astana are bidding to become the first representatives from their country to reach the Champions League group stage.
KF Skënderbeu Korçë v Dinamo Zagreb
Like Astana, Albanian side Klubi Futbollistik Skënderbeu Korçë (nicknamed the Snow Wolves) are trying to become the first club from their country to qualify for the Champions League group stage. Skënderbeu have already improved on last season’s performance in the competition by making it to the playoff round. Last season saw them lose in the second qualifying round to Hungarian side Debreceni VSC. This year they are assured of competing in a UEFA club competition group stage regardless of the outcome against Dinamo.
Croatian giants Dinamo are powered by a pair of Markos. Forward Marko Pjaca has three goals in four qualifying matches and some may remember his hat-trick against Celtic in the last match of last season’s UEFA Europa League group stage. The one to watch in this fixture is Marko Rog. Rog joined Dinamo this summer in a 5m euros deal from RNK Split. He has paid early dividends scoring two goals in four qualifying matches. Rog has decent pace and good dribbling ability that allows him to make penetrating runs at the back four.
Celtic v Malmo
This playoff may come down to the simple matter of which Celtic shows up. If we take their game from the weekend against Inverness CT as a case study, it will illustrate two different teams. For the first hour or so of the match, Celtic had the run of things and found themselves with a four-goal lead – it could have been much more. Celtic’s passing and movement had Inverness on the back foot with long stretches played with their backs to the wall. Not long after subbing off Scott Brown and Dedryck Boyata things began to change. Recent signing from Manchester City, Boyata in particular will want to put the match behind him as soon as possible.
Whether Malmo have the tools to exploit any defensive frailties Celtic may show is another story. Malmo currently sit fifth in the Allsvenskan and have struggled for goals early in Champions League qualifying (one in three matches) until a three-goal burst in the home leg against Red Bull Salzburg to seal their place in the playoffs. The two main threats are former Cardiff City midfielders Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Jo Inge Berget, who had a very short loan spell with Celtic, and striker Markus Rosenberg.
FC Basel vs Maccabi Tel-Aviv
Basel always seem to find ways to win big matches in the Champions League in recent years and this one will be no different. Basel also have a favorable head-to-head record having knocked Maccabi out of both the Champions League and Europa League in the 2013-14 campaign. Maccabi beat Czech champions Viktoria Plzen in the previous round to assure themselves of some European soccer no matter what happens in this tie.
TV times for first legs (all times Eastern)
Tuesday, August 18
Astana vs APOEL, Noon, FOX Soccer Plus, FOX Deportes and FOX Soccer 2GO
Manchester United vs. Brugge, 2:45pm, FOX Sports 1, FOX Deportes and FOX Soccer 2GO
BATE vs Partizan, 2:45pm, FOX Soccer 2GO
Sporting vs. CSKA Moscow, 2:45pm, FOX Soccer Plus and FOX Soccer 2GO
Lazio vs Bayer Leverkusen, 2:45pm, FOX Sports 2 and FOX Soccer 2GO
Wednesday, August 19
Celtic vs. Malmo, 2:45pm, FOX Soccer Plus and FOX Soccer 2GO
Rapid Vienna vs. Shakhtar Donetsk, 2:45pm, FOX Soccer 2GO
Basel vs. Maccabi Tel Aviv, 2:45pm, FOX Soccer 2GO
Skenderbeu vs. Dinamo Zagreb, 2:45pm, FOX Soccer 2GO
Valencia vs. Monaco, 2:45pm, FOX Sports 2 and FOX Soccer 2GO
BATE Borisov v Partizan Belgrade
The third qualifying round saw Partizan defeat frequent group stage participants Steaua Bucharest. Could they now unseat another frequent qualifier? BATE did not overwhelm their opposition, Hungarian side Videoton FC, in the last round so this should be a tightly contested tie. Goals have not come easy for BATE, the Belarusian Premier League leaders, having only scored 22 in 16 domestic matches this season. BATE will look to Aleksandr Karnitski to provide some spark. He’s managed two goals in four qualifying matches so far. Goals have not been a problem for Partizan but keeping clean sheets has proved a little trickier for the Serbian side. Domestically, they’ve scored 16 in five games but have also conceded seven times. Stefan Babović is the man to match for Partizan. He primarily plays as an attacking midfielder or a winger and is equally comfortable on either flank. Babović scored a beautiful goal from a free-kick against Dila Gori in the second qualifying round to ensure a 1-0 home win.
Lazio v Bayer Leverkusen
Leverkusen are 5-0 in UEFA Champions League qualifiers and I see no reason for that record to change this time around. Led by German national team players such as forward Karim Bellarabi and defensive midfielder Lars Bender, the squad has depth and had a good run in last season’s competition. The one to watch will be 21-year-old Turkish international Hakan Çalhanoğlu. The attacking midfielder had an immediate impact after his transfer move from Hamburg to Leverkusen. In 47 appearances he scored 13 goals and provided 11 assists.
Lazio are largely unchanged from last season. They relied a lot on goals from a variety of sources without one out and out main threat. Miroslav Klose led the way with 16 in all competitions while Antonio Candreva, Felipe Anderson and Marco Parolo all reached double figures. Former captain Stefano Mauri’s contract with the club expired and while talks are ongoing, he has not resigned. Their signings have a “moneyball” feel to them – they sought out younger talent with tremendous potential. Former Manchester United academy player Ravel Morrison, Ricardo Kishna from Ajax and Sergej Milinković-Savić from Belgian side Genk all have the potential to be first team players for Lazio, but it would be surprising to see any of them feature against Leverkusen. Lazio are off to a slow start having lost to Juventus in the Supercoppa Italian, however, they will provide stern opposition, although I feel Leverkusen with their attacking pace and solid defensive unit will narrowly edge this tie.
Manchester United vs. Club Brugge
Club Brugge, who finished second in the Belgian league last season, advanced to this stage by beating Greek side Panathinaikos 4-2 on aggregate in the third qualifying round. This is Club Brugge’s first UEFA Champions League play-off – they have won all five of their play-off ties in the UEFA Europa League. They would hope for a return to the group stage having not participated since the 2005-06 season. The elder statesman of the squad, Timmy Simons, returned to Brugge for a second time after spending five seasons with PSV Eindhoven and three seasons with Bundesliga side 1. FC Nuremberg. Simons is also the second-most capped player Belgian. Victor Vasquez is the creative engine for Brugge. A former Barcelona academy player, Vasquez totaled 11 goals and 14 assists in 47 appearances last season.
Manchester United will feel relieved to have avoided tougher draws CSKA Moscow, Lazio or AS Monaco. The Red Devils are off to a solid but unspectacular start to the Premier League season. They have recorded consecutive 1-0 victories but have failed to look cohesive in attack. There has been significant change in the squad and the playing formation so this could be a closer match than Louis van Gaal would care for. Look for the Belgian club to try and remain compact and keep nine men behind the ball for long stretches of this one.
Rapid Vienna vs Shakhtar Donetsk
Ukrainian side Shakhtar have made the Round of 16 in two of the last three campaigns and have not missed a UEFA Champions League group stage campaign since 2009-10. It would be a major upset for Rapid to knock them off at this stage but they’ve managed the feat once already having edged Ajax 5-4 on aggregate. The Ukrainians brushed aside Turkish superclub Fenerbahçe to reach this stage. Rapid will have to hope to score on the counter attack through Slovenian striker Robert Berić. Shakhtar have plenty of firepower of their own including midfield maestro Alex Teixeira and his fellow Brazilian-born (though Croatian citizen) Eduardo Da Silva. Eduardo returned to Shakhtar after playing one season with Brazilian side Flamengo.
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