Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Plenty at stake in Champions League playoffs

The Champions League playoffs for the new season are a matter of hours away, and there are some intriguing clashes to decide the last 10 teams to join the group stage proper for this year's competition. The playoffs are usually a good indicator for the rest of the season, as history shows that teams who lose generally get into a funk that can last a few months in to their domestic seasons.

Borussia Monchengladbach is the one name that sticks out for aficionados of European football history. The German club played two epic finals against Liverpool in the UEFA Cup and European Cup during a glorious reign in the 70's. Lucien Favre's talented squad are on the cusp of qualifying for the main competition for the first time since 1978, and with some quality signings made in Luuk De Jong, Alvaro Dominguez and Granit Xhaka, the hopes are high for Die Fohlen to make it through.

Up against them are another historic name, Dynamo Kyiv from Ukraine. Kyiv were extremely lucky against Feyenoord in the previous round, and will have to play considerably better if they are to progress further in the competition. Struggling to recapture the glory days when Andriy Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov were terrorizing defences across Europe, the club's hopes are now based on the shoulders of Ukrainian star Andriy Yarmolenko and the mega-bucks acquisition of Portuguese national team midfielder, Miguel Veloso.

Another team who have a lot riding in the play-offs, are Turkish champions Fenerbahce. After being controversially disqualified from last season's competition for their involvement in the disgraceful Turkish league match-fixing scandal, Fenerbahce will be keen to make up for lost time. With new arrivals Milos Krasic and Dirk Kuyt boosting an attack that already features the prolific Moussa Sow, and Joseph Yobo brought in to steady the defence, the Yellow Canaries should have enough to defeat Spartak Moscow, especially with the second leg at their famed Sukru Saracoglu Stadium. The biggest obstacle to victory for Fenerbahce, could be the tactical genius of Spartak's new manager, Unai Emery.

After some humiliating defeats at this stage in previous years, Neil Lennon's Celtic will also be hoping to make it to the group stage. Celtic have fallen down the ranks rapidly since their remarkable odyssey to the knock-out stages in 2007. Neil Lennon's squad doesn't feature a single player that any European contender would be interested in, but with the second leg at Parkhead against Helsingborg, this tie represents Celtic's best chance of making it to the group stages in recent years.

Considered by many to be the be the closest challengers to PSG domestically in France, Lille will be hoping to establish themselves as steady performers on the European stage this year. Lille were underwhelming in their performance last year, finishing bottom of a group that featured a weak Inter Milan, Trabzonspor and CSKA Moscow. Manager Rudi Garcia is a shrewd operator, and having invested some of the funds generated by the sale of star player Edin Hazard wisely, Lille should have too much in store against Kobenhavn of Denmark.

The play-offs also feature Basel, the Swiss team who eliminated Manchester United from the group stages last year. Basel have sold some of their best midfielders in Xerdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, so the expectations this year will be to simply qualify for the group stages, a task that shouldn't be beyond them against CFR Cluj.

Belorussian gianst BATE Borisov play against debutants Kiryat Shamona from Israel, while another debutant AEL Limassol of Cyprus will look to follow in the footsteps of last years surprise quarter-finalists, APOEL Nicosia. AEL will need inspiration from APOEL, as they will be massive underdogs against Belgian giants Anderlecht, who have assembled their best squad in many years.

The play-off draw is rounded up with a Slavic rivalry pitting Dinamo Zagreb from Croatia against Maribor from Slovenia, and the last two match-ups feature teams from the troubled euro debt zone playing against each other. Udinese will be hoping to go one better after last years unfortunate defeat against Arsenal at the same stage. In their way will be Portuguese underdogs Braga. After promises of challenging Real Madrid and Barcelona, Malaga are going through financial turmoil, and progressing to the group stages at the expense of Panathinaikos will be absolutely crucial to ensure some much need stability.