Over the last two days, 20 of Europe’s lower-league winners and big league high-finishers have playing high-stakes ties for the final 10 spots in UEFA Champions League’s group stage. Last year’s 32 qualifiers were guaranteed a payout of at least $9 million, with more money available via performance bonuses (for example, each group stage point was worth about $500,000, and that’s not even considering the gate receipts and potential television revenue).
For most clubs in this week’s playoff rounds, the last two weeks’ games will be the most valuable they’ll play this year. For name clubs like Anderlecht, Celtic, Dynamo Kyiv, Fenerbahçe, and Lille, failure to qualify for the world’s biggest club competition would be a bitter disappointment.
Most of those clubs went through, as did some teams that will likely be fodder for Europe’s giants.
First the results, then the implications. On Tuesday:
- Spain’s fourth-place finisher Malaga held Pananthinaikos (second, Greece) to a 0-0 in Athens, advancing with a 2-0 aggregate win.
- Sporting Braga (third, Portugal) defeated Udinese (third, Italy) on penalty kicks after two 1-1 legs, marking the second year in a row Udinese lost in the play-off round.
- Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb (Luka Modric’s former employer) eliminated Slovenia’s Nordsjælland, with Tuesday’s 1-0 giving Dinamo a 3-1 aggregate victory.
- Nordsjælland came back from a 1-2 deficit to defeat Cypriots AEL 3-2, with Aleksandr Yakovenko scoring in the 89th minute to send the Belgians through.
- And Belarussian champion BATE won 1-0 in Israel, eliminating Ironi Kiryat Shmona, 3-1.
Then today, the final five group stage invitations were handed out:
- An extra time goal from Tulio Melo allowed Lille (third, France) to came back from a 1-0, first leg deficit and defeat Copenhagen (second, Denmark), 2-1. For Copenhagen, the biggest and richest club in Denmark, the loss makes even more embarrassing last season’s collapse that handed the league to Nordsjælland.
- Dynamo Kyiv (second, Ukraine) held on to the 3-1 lead they earned last week in Germany, advancing with a 4-3 victory over Borussia Moenchengladbach (fourth, Germany) thanks to an 88th minute (or, 178th minute) goal from Brown Ideye.
- Scottish champions Celtic replicated last week’s result, handing Sweden’s Helsingborg a second 2-0 defeat.
- Swiss champions (and one of last year’s Cinderellas) Basel fell 1-0 in Romania, with CFR Cluj earning the group stage spot after a 3-1 aggregate result.
- And finally, Spartak Moscow earned a 1-1 in Istanbul which, combined with their 2-1 last week at Luzniki Stadium, eliminated Turkish runners up Fenerbahçe.
That leaves us with these four pods for tomorrow’s group stage draw in Monaco:
Group 1: Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal (England); Barcelona, Real Madrid (Spain); Bayern Munich (Germany); Porto (Portugal); Milan (Italy)
Group 2: Valencia (Spain); Benfica, Braga (Portugal); Shakhtar Donetsk, Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine); Zenit (Russia); Schalke 04 (Germany); Manchester City (England)
Group 3: Olympiacos (Greece); Ajax (Netherlands); Anderlecht (Belgium); Juventus (Italy); Spartak Moscow (Russia); Paris Saint-Germain, Lille (France); Galatasaray (Turkey)
Group 4: Celtic (Scotland); Borussia Dortmund (Germany); BATE Borisov (Belarus); Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia); CFR Cluj (Romania); Malaga (Spain); Montpellier (France); Nordsjælland (Denmark)
Time permitting, we’ll be back with some best and worst case scenarios for the big boys. With teams group based on how they’ve performed in UEFA competition over the last five years, the most difficult foursomes will likely include one or two clubs that have spent beyond their station.