After what feels like a lifetime, judgment day has finally arrived. Riches or Rags, Michelin Star Dining or your local Italian restaurant in town, the events of the next two weeks will reveal all. Yes folks, the UEFA Champions League Play-Off Round has arrived. Four previous long, tough and scalp-claiming rounds have been negotiated which all began on 25th June 2019 with Feronikeli from Kosovo and FC Santa Coloma from Andorra defeating Lincoln Red Imps and Tre Penne from Gibraltar and San Marino respectively. Whilst the winners of this round may not be heading for Venus as Europe famously remarked, they are heading for European football’s top table and the riches that accompany it. So without further delay, who are the runners and riders looking to book the final six reservations?
GNK Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) v Rosenborg BK (Norway)
The first tie from the Champions Path is Dinamo Zagreb v Rosenborg. The Croatian side have been the dominant force in their domestic competition the Prva Liga by winning 13 out of the last 14 championships. In European competitions throughout that time, life has been more of a struggle with many a failed attempt to qualify for the Group Stages of the Champions League. Last campaign saw another failure after suffering a 3-2 aggregate loss to Young Boys of Switzerland in the Play-Off Round.
Nonetheless, many at the Maksimir Stadium believed it to be one of the best European campaigns for many a season in the Croatian capital. Post-defeat against Young Boys, Dinamo impressively topped a UEFA Europa League group which included Fenerbahce and Anderlecht. Post-Christmas, they then eliminated Viktoria Plzen in the Round of 32 before falling 3-1 on aggregate to a Joao Felix-inspired Benfica in the Round of 16.
Their opponents, Rosenborg hail from the Norwegian city of Trondheim. Like Dinamo, Rosenborg have been the dominant force in domestic football with 26 Norwegian titles to their name, the most in history. Between 1992 and 2004, Rosenborg won 13 straight titles and qualified for the Champions League group stage 11 times during this period.
Two of these qualification attempts resulted in passing the first group stage, in 1996/97 and 1999/00. Yet, the last time the Troillongan (Troll Children) as they are affectionately known reached the Champions League group stage was the 2007/08 season, famously being the final opponents of Jose Mourinho’s first spell in charge of Chelsea.
Both outfits have players in their squads familiar to English viewers. Dinamo Zagreb possess both Portuguese fullback Ivo Pinto who returned to the club this summer after three and a half seasons with Norwich City and former Cardiff City defender Kevin Theophile-Catherine. Rosenborg, on the other hand, have 31-year-old former Arsenal, Birmingham City and Sunderland striker Niklas Bendtner on their payroll.
Expect a tight match, however, I’m tipping Dinamo Zagreb to edge it. One player to watch at the Croatian outfit is 21 year-old Spanish attacking midfielder Dani Olmo. Dinamo reportedly rejected a transfer bid from Manchester United for Olmo’s services this summer yet the midfielder has reportedly declared that he wishes to leave Zagreb. Can he secure Champions League qualification for Dinamo as a parting gift?
CFR 1907 Cluj (Romania) v Slavia Prague (Czech Republic)
The next tie from the Champions section to watch is CFR 1907 Cluj against Slavia Prague. The Romanian outfit hail from the city of Cluj-Napoca in Transylvania. The club have strong experience of both the good and bad since the new millennium. The good included their first-ever Romanian title in 2007/08, one of five subsequently won since and three qualifications for the Champions League group stages. Sandwiched in-between this has been the bad of the 2014/15 season when the club experienced severe financial difficulties. Currently, on a two-year winning streak, the Railwaymen are currently targeting a third straight domestic title this season.
Their opponents Slavia Prague are one of Czechoslovakia and subsequently the Czech Republic’s most successful clubs winning 18 titles in their history, second only to their fierce rivals Sparta. 2018/19 was a fine season for the Red Whites, not only did they claim a domestic league and cup double, they made waves in European competition. After being knocked out of Champions League qualification by Dynamo Kiev, Slavia then had a fine run in the Europa League, reaching the Quarter Finals of the competition and eliminating five time winners Sevilla in the Round of Sixteen in the process. Slavia fell to eventual winners Chelsea, nonetheless, they gave the Premier League giants a run for their money before succumbing 5-3 on aggregate.
Based on their fine Europa League exploits of last season, Slavia have to be considered favourites here for this tie. Nonetheless, Cluj under the stewardship of former Romanian international and Chelsea fullback Dan Petrescu should not be discounted. Cluj famously in the last round eliminated Neil Lennon’s Celtic 5-4 on aggregate.
BSC Young Boys (Switzerland) v Red Star Belgrade (Serbia)
For many a season in Swiss football a dynasty ruled, that of FC Basel. Between the 2002/03 and 2016/17 season, Basel won 11 out of 14 Swiss titles and also achieved some famous results in European football. The most notable of which was knocking both Manchester United and Liverpool out of the Champions League group stages in 2011/12 and 2014/15 respectively. However, there is a new dynasty growing in Swiss football now, that of Young Boys. The Bern-based outfit ended Basel’s run of eight straight Swiss titles in 2017/18 and then retained their title in 2018/19 by a massive margin of 20 points from Basel in second place and are now the side to beat in the Swiss Super League.
Their opponents, Red Star Belgrade are a name familiar to everyone in European football circles. In 1990/91, the Serbian outfit, then competing for Yugoslavia won the precursor to the Champions League, the European Cup beating Chris Waddle’s Olympique de Marseille 5-3 on penalties after extra time. In fact, to reach this very stage of qualification this time round, Red Star came through the third qualification round 7-6 on penalties against FC Copenhagen of Denmark after a mammoth shootout involving 22 penalties between the sides.
Despite Red Star’s former pedigree in European competitions, one has to consider Young Boys as favourites here. The Swiss outfit have some talented operators in their squad such as Miralem Sulejmani, Frederik Sorensen, Fabian Lustenberger and most famously striker Guillaume Hoarau, formerly of Paris St Germain.
APOEL Nicosia (Cyprus) v AFC Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
The final tie from the Champions pathway sees APOEL Nicosia take on Ajax Amsterdam. APOEL are Cypriot football’s most successful club with 28 Cypriot titles. In the Champions League era, APOEL have reached the Champions League group stages on four occasions. The most famous of these was in 2011/12 when they topped a Champions League group containing 3 previous Europa League winners FC Porto, Zenit St Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk, eliminated Olympique Lyonnais in the Round of 16 before falling to Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid in the Quarter Finals.
Ajax are a name familiar to everyone, the most successful Dutch club in history with 34 Eredivisie titles and 4 European Cup/UEFA Champions League wins, the most recent being in 1994/95. Last season was a memorable one for the Amsterdam club, a league and cup double domestically followed by a run to the Champions League Semi-Finals, knocking out Real Madrid and Juventus along the way before succumbing to Tottenham Hotspur and missing out on a historic final. It is one of the cruel realities of modern football that after such a fine run last time out that Ajax, as a result of the Dutch Eredivisie co-efficient now have to qualify for the Champions League groups for this season. A narrow 5-4 aggregate win against Greek Champions PAOK in the Third Qualifying Round highlighted this precarious situation the Amsterdam outfit face.
It is very hard with the greatest of respect in the world to imagine Ajax having too many difficulties against APOEL. Despite some noteworthy summer departures, many of the heroes from last season’s historic run remain at the club such as David Neres, Nicolas Tagliafico, Hakim Ziyech, Dusan Tadic and Donny van der Beek.
LASK Linz (Austria) v Club Brugge KV (Belgium)
Attention now turns to the league path, designated for those teams who finished as non-Champions of their domestic leagues. The first of two ties from this qualification pathway is LASK Linz against Club Brugge. LASK Linz are perhaps of all teams left in Champions League qualification the least-recognisable. The Black-Whites have won only one Austrian Bundesliga title in history in 1964/65 and finish second place in the league behind Red Bull Salzburg last season, only the second time in their history the club finished as runners-up. What followed next was a shock as they eliminated Swiss giants FC Basel 5-2 on aggregate in the Third Round of Champions League qualification. LASK are now just one win away from the Group Stage of the Champions League, quite a turnaround for a club who in 2016/17 were winning the 2 Bundesliga title in Austria. Two famous names can be found at LASK, their manager, former Bayern Munich defender Valerien Ismael and a playing member, 36 year-old former Middlesbrough and Hannover 96 defender Emmanuel Pogatetz.
Standing in the way of LASK are a club with a vast European pedigree, Club Brugge. The Belgian outfit were runners-up in the 2018/19 Belgian First division and are 15 times winners of their domestic title. The Blue-Blacks may never have won a European club title, nonetheless, they have reached both a UEFA Cup and a European Cup final in 1976 and 1978 losing on both occasions. The most famous name on their playing roster is their big-name summer signing, Belgian national team goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. At 31, Mignolet with nearly 250 English Premier League appearances to his name with both Sunderland and Liverpool over the last nine years has returned to his homeland.
Whilst LASK Linz is a great story, one would expect Club Brugge to be favourites here. A stronger domestic league and more European competition being two such reasons to back the Belgians to reach the group stage.
Olympiakos Piraeus (Greece) v FK Krasnodar (Russia)
The final tie in the Play-Off Round sees Olympiakos take on Krasnodar. Olympiakos need no introduction to anyone, 44 times Champion of Greece, more than all other clubs’ combined titles, the club have recently undergone some tough times. Their last title was in 2016/17 and they have had to witness firstly AEK Athens and then PAOK Salonika win the last two editions. Nonetheless, despite the difficult times domestically, the Red-Whites have still caused a stir on the continent, famously knocking AC Milan out of last season’s Europa League.
Their opponents FK Krasnodar are one of the fastest rising clubs in European football. Hailing from the same city as Kuban Krasnodar, FK Krasnodar were only formed in the year 2008. They are the brainchild of Krasnodar native Sergey Galitsky, a billionaire who made his fortune in retailing with Russian supermarket chain Magnit. Krasnodar first reached the Russian top flight in 2011/12 and have not only usurped their city rivals Kuban but have also now established themselves as title contenders against the giants of Russian football such as Zenit St Petersburg, Spartak Moscow and CSKA Moscow.
You may think this is another Anzhi Makhachkala story of sugar-daddy backed club who will eventually fade away when the owner gets bored. Think again, Krasnodar is a very sustainable club who play an attractive brand of football, have a committed owner and have invested in the best academy and youth facilities in Russian football. The first young players from this academy production line are now beginning to surface and Krasnodar are making strides in European football as well as domestically. Last season they defeated Sevilla and Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League and this season went one better. Not many gave the Bulls as they are known a chance when drawn with two-time UEFA Champions League winners FC Porto in the 3rd Qualification Round. Many thought after their home 1-0 loss in the first leg that the second leg in Porto would be damage limitation for Krasnodar. Yet a stunning 3-2 victory in the Estadio do Dragao saw Krasnodar progress on away goals and knock last season’s Champions League Quarter Finalists out.
Olympiakos might have the greater European experience and pedigree, however, they are not the force they were 5 to 10 years ago. Krasnodar have invested in a strong squad and have the confidence of that famous victory against Porto behind them. It will be close, however, I am backing the Russian outfit to reach the Champions League group stages for the very first time.
Article by @RichDPike