The UEFA Champions League play-off round begins today with the ten remaining places in the group stage up for grabs.
For the likes of Arsenal and Lyon the prospect of missing a season in the continent’s premier club competition does not bear thinking about. At the same time, history beckons for Sheriff and entspils as they bid to become the first sides from Moldova and Latvia respectively to take their place at Europe’s top table.
Arsenal, like Lyon, face tough opposition in the Non-Champions Route, with the London side pitted against British opponents Celtic. Both won the opening games of their domestic campaigns on Saturday, with last term’s semi-finalists particularly impressive in a 6-1 victory at Everton.
“Our confidence will have been lifted by our result, but we still have to be alert because we know every game is different,” manager Arsène Wenger said. “It is up to us to show how much we have matured as a team.”
Lyon are aiming for a tenth consecutive group-stage appearance, but for the first time since 2000/01 they have to contest a qualifier and Belgian runners-up Anderlecht will provide a stern test of their resolve. Panathinaikos and Atlético de Madrid both reached the first knockout round last season and meet now for a place in the group stage, while Sporting Clube de Portugal take on Fiorentina with both also looking to return to the competition proper.
Sporting have something of a head start having kicked off their Liga campaign with a 1-1 draw against Nacional on Saturday, while Cesare Prandelli’s side play their first competitive match of the season at the José Alvalade on Tuesday. The final Non-Champions Route tie pits Timişoara against 2007 Bundesliga champions Stuttgart with the Romanian side looking to reach the group stage for the first time – as are Sheriff, Ventspils, FC Zürich, APOEL and Debreceni in the Champions Route.
Olympiacos stand in the way of Moldovan champions Sheriff, with the Greek champions eyeing a return to the group stage after missing out last season. They lost to Temuri Ketsbaia’s Anorthosis Famagusta in the third qualifying round in 2008/09 and have appointed the Georgian coach to steer their safe passage this time round.
APOEL will aim to emulate their fellow Cypriot club’s achievement when they take on Denmark’s FC København, while Salzburg face Maccabi Haifa and Levski Sofia meet Hungarian titleholders Debrecen. Latvian champions Ventspils will hope a coaching change has the desired effect against Zürich after Italian Nunzio Zavettieri replaced Roman Grigorchuk just eight days before the first leg in Riga.
The first legs take place today and tomorrow with the ties concluding next week. The losers will continue their European campaigns in the UEFA Europa League group stage.