By Brian Homewood
Shakhter Karagandy, a Kazakh mining town team based nearer Mongolia than UEFA headquarters in Switzerland, could add an exotic touch to the Champions League group stage if they can hold out against Celtic on Wednesday.
The team from the windswept, coal-mining town of Karagandy on the Kazakh steppe, take a 2-0 cushion to Glasgow for the second leg of their playoff tie, one of 10 being played over Tuesday and Wednesday to decide who joins the 22 teams already qualified for the group stage.
There is a lot at stake financially as each of the 32 teams in the group stage will receive a basic fee of 8.6 million euros ($11.53 million), according to UEFA, plus 1 million euros for each win and half that amount for each draw.
They stand to receive further income from UEFA’s television rights and sponsorship pool.
Arsenal should comfortably make the group stage for the 16th season in a row against a Fenerbahce team caught up in a match-fixing scandal while FC Basel, Zenit St Petersburg, Real Sociedad and Austria Vienna look set to join them.
Seven-times champions AC Milan, the most illustrious team in the action this week, also have a slight advantage against 1988 European Cup winners PSV Eindhoven, having drawn 1-1 away in the first leg, but are still not home and dry.
Milan, who spent most of last season playing catch-up after a dismal start, cannot afford to miss out on the group stage and, worryingly, began their Serie A campaign with a 2-1 defeat at promoted Hellas Verona on Saturday.
“We know it is a crossroads for our season, we have to turn the page and focus on this match at the San Siro,” said captain Riccardo Montolivo.
At the other end of the scale from Milan, Shakhter will travel across five time zones to defend their lead at former champions Celtic.
If they are successful, the Pitmen, who were founded in 1958 and never got to compete in the top flight of the old Soviet league, would be the first Kazakh team to reach the group stage since their country joined UEFA from the Asian confederation in 2002.
The huge distances to Kazakhstan plus frigid conditions in November and December would make them a team to avoid in the draw and they have already attracted controversy for slaughtering a sheep before last week’s first leg.
Animal rights group PETA has written to UEFA president Michel Platini asking him to use his influence to ensure that the governing body’s “prestigious competitions are not tainted by such horrifying cruelty”.
Celtic, who reached the last 16 last season, still believe they can turn the tie around on Wednesday.
“We will get a head of steam up, the fans will be behind us,” manager Neil Lennon told the BBC. “This team (Celtic) are capable of scoring goals at any time. We created enough chances (in the first leg) to have won the game.”
Arsenal brought a 3-0 lead back from Turkey last week and, although they have twice suffered three-goal home defeats in Europe in the past, the task seems beyond a limited Fenerbahce in Tuesday’s return.
Even if they were to pull off the win, Fenerbahce could still be kicked out on Wednesday when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) is due to announce the result of their appeal against a two-year ban from European competition over a domestic match-fixing scandal in 2011.
Arsenal were among five teams who won away in last week’s 10 first leg matches.
FC Basel, 4-2 winners at Bulgarian champions Ludogorets Razgrad, Zenit St Petersburg, who beat Portugal’s Pacos de Ferreira 4-1 in Porto, and Real Sociedad, who beat Olympique Lyon 2-0, should also finish the job on home ground.
Austria Vienna look almost certain to end their country’s seven-season absence from the group stage against Dinamo Zagreb after last week’s 2-0 away win which cost Krunoslav Jurcic his job as coach of the Croatian champions.
The Bundesliga’s prestige faces an early test as Schalke 04 visit PAOK after being held 1-1 at home last week but with the consolation of knowing the match will be played behind closed doors in Greece.
Legia Warsaw, who host former champions Steaua Bucharest after a 1-1 draw in Romania, could qualify for only the second time while Czech champions Viktoria Plzen take a 3-1 lead to Slovenia’s Maribor, who have each qualified once before.