By Brian Homewood
Rank outsiders Skenderbeu and distant Astana will line-up alongside traditional powers such as Manchester United, Valencia and Bayer Leverkusen as the Champions League playoffs get under way with first legs this week.
With millions of euros’ revenue, plus the prestige of a place in the group stage at stake, the playoffs often serve up more drama and tension than the group stage itself.
The outcome can also have a significant impact on the rest of the season for clubs who miss out on the group stage windfall.
Italy’s Napoli never really recovered last season from their defeat to Athletic Bilbao one year ago.
They eventually limped in fifth in Serie A, well short of expectations and outside the Champions League places, and coach Rafael Benitez left the club at the end of the season, although subsequently landed on his feet when he was appointed by Real Madrid.
For teams such as former European champions Manchester United, who raked in 32 million euros ($35.54 million) from their last group stage appearance in 2013/14, getting through the playoffs is considered little more than an obligation.
Even so, with United still getting into their stride, their tie against Belgians Club Bruges is anything than a formality.
“Bruges are a good side, they reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League and finished second in the Belgian League last season,” said Louis Van Gaal when the draw was made.
Van Gaal’s side, absent from the group stage last term for the first time in 19 seasons, are facing the uncertainties of the playoff round for the first time since 2005, when they overcame Hungary’s Debrecen 6-0 on aggregate.
United, who host the first leg on Tuesday, have never been knocked out in the Champions League qualifying rounds and have won four of their side meetings against Belgian opponents.
Valencia, who have spent more than 100 million euros on transfers in the close season, host last season’s quarter-finalists Monaco on Wednesday as they attempt to return to the group stage after a two-season absence.
In the other top tie, Italy’s Lazio, who have not played in the group stage since 2007-08, host Bundesliga outfit Bayer Leverkusen on Tuesday.
Sporting host CSKA Moscow on Tuesday in a repeat of the 2005 UEFA Cup final which the Russians won while Rapid Vienna, who stunned Ajax Amsterdam in the previous round, host group stage regulars Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday.
Skenderbeu, aiming to become the first Albanian side to reach the group stage, host more experienced Dinamo Zagreb, Croatian champions for the last 10 years on Wednesday.
Their hopes of a historic win lie largely on the shoulders of striker Hamdi Salihi who has scored five goals in four qualifiers this season.
Kazakhstan could also be represented for the first time if Astana can overcame Cypriot champions APOEL, who must make a 7,000 kilometre round trip to Central Asia for the first leg on Tuesday.
Scottish champions Celtic, European Cup winners in 1967, experienced the full trauma of a playoff round defeat last season when they were beaten by Slovenia’s Maribor.
They are at home to Swedish counterparts Malmo, European Cup finalists in 1979, who are attempting to reach the group stage for the second season in a row.
Champions League regulars FC Basel, Swiss champions for the last six seasons, face Maccabi Tel Aviv and BATE Borisov, who have also became familiar faces in the group stage with four appearances since 2008/09, are at home to Partizan in the other tie.