Tuesday 26 August ~
At the behest UEFA president Michel Platini, the Champions League is set for a revamp from 2009-10 with some of the teams from top-ranked countries being paired against one another in the qualifying rounds. This is designed to free up more places for champions from lesser countries. But that looks set to happen a year earlier than expected. The results of matches being played tonight and tomorrow may produce first-time qualifiers from Belarus, Lithuania and Cyprus.
Of those three clubs, Kaunas from Lithuania, sponsored by the bank belonging to Hearts' owner Vladimir Romanov, are the least likely to make it as they already trail 2-0 from their first leg against another relative minnow, Aalborg of Denmark. But they have already had an impact on this year's competition thanks to their last-minute elimination of Rangers in the previous round. That early exit was a financial catastrophe for the SPL runners-up, a fact borne out by Walter Smith's pre-match comment that the tie was more important to win than last season's UEFA Cup final.
Some players from Belarus have made an impression in the Champions League in recent times, notably Alexander Hleb with Arsenal and a couple of his compatriots at Dinamo Kiev, but since independence the domestic league has been mired in mediocrity. However, BATE Borisov will become the first Belarussian team to reach the group stage if, as seems likely, they overcome Levski Sofia having already won the first match in Bulgaria.
The outcome of the third tie will generate huge headlines in the two countries involved. Anorthosis of Cyprus hold a 3-0 lead from their first leg against Olympiakos of Greece. Cypriot football has improved immeasurably over the last ten years: the national team has moved up the international rankings after several fine home performances while club sides, bolstered by from players imported from eastern Europe and more recently Africa, have also recorded several victories over higher-ranked teams.
An Olympiakos defeat wouldn't be the first for a Greek side against Cypriot opponents – Iraklis from Salonika have been beaten three times in European competition by teams from the island, including once by Anorthosis – but it would nonetheless represent a humiliation for a club who have been regular participants in the Champions League. The Greek football press may have a lot to get their teeth into this week as another of the country's big three clubs, AEK Athens, lost 1-0 at home to Omonia Nicosia in their UEFA Cup second qualifying round match, the second leg of which is played in Cyprus on Thursday. Meanwhile a Greek sports paper today made a headline out of the Olympiakos players' pledge: “We will not leave the ground until we qualify.” A tense evening awaits.