By: Grant Fisken
The first legs of the second qualifying round of the Champions League take place this midweek, although UEFA would be as well renaming them the “Please Let Us Get to the Group Stage for a Slice of the Riches” rounds as the gulf between Europe’s elite and the rest grows wider by the season.
Entering at the second qualifying stage include the champions of Romania, Denmark, Poland, Scotland, Sweden and Hungary, domestic leagues that are getting left behind by the behemoth that is Europe’s top club competition. If you consider the runners-up in the Belgian, Swiss, Czech and Austrian leagues (among others) do not begin the competition until the next qualifying round, it highlights the illusion of the “Champions” League.
Celtic face a tricky opening tie against the Icelandic champions Stjarnan. The team from Gardaber enjoyed a dream European debut in the Europa League last season, knocking out Bangor City, Motherwell and Lech Poznan before losing 9-0 on aggregate in the play-off round against Internazionale. The Italians were also the team to end the Scottish champions’ European run in 2014/15, in the last 32. Celtic managed to be knocked out of Europe three times last season, also losing versus Legia Warsaw (before being reinstated) and Maribor in the Champions League.
Maribor are one of five teams, along with APOEL, BATE Borisov, Malmo and Ludogorets Razgrad, to begin their campaigns this week who made it to the group stage last season, though they all finished bottom of their respective groups, conceding 78 goals between them. All five teams would be delighted to get the chance to repeat that fate, and should progress at least to the next qualifying round.
Lech Poznan carry Polish hopes of becoming the first team from the country to reach the group stage since Widzew Lodz in 1996. They have had a promising start to their 2015/16 campaign after beating Legia Warsaw 3-1 in the Polish Super Cup on Friday, and will travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina to play FK Sarajevo. The Ekstraklasa champions will be desperate to erase memories of the 1-0 aggregate defeat against Stjarnan in last season’s Europa League qualifying rounds.
One of the most intriguing ties of the week could be in Slovakia, where AS Trencin will host 1986 European Cup winners Steaua Bucharest. The Romanians are the highest-ranked team at this stage of the competition but have won only one of their last 10 European away matches. However, Trencin’s home advantage may be nullified by having to play the match at the home of MSK Zilina, as their own Stadion na Sihoti is unfit for purpose in UEFA competitions. This leaves Steaua looking like a tempting offer at 6/4.
The Herning Stadion in Denmark should be the venue for goals with Danish champions FC Midtyjlland being handed the kindest draw of the round in their Champions League debut. They will host Lincoln Red Imps who made history in the first qualifying round by becoming the first Gibraltarian team to win a European tie when they defeated Andorrans FC Santa Coloma 2-1 on aggregate.