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.