The UEFA Champions League returns to action tonight, with 14 second qualifying round first-leg ties - and the propect of several upsets.
Dynamo injury crisis
A second qualifying round match against the Armenian champions FC Pyunik would normally be seen as a comfortable tie for FC Dynamo Kyiv. However, Pyunik are a side bang in form, having overcome Tampere United FC 6-0 on aggregate in the first qualifying round.
To add to Dynamo's worries they are in the midst of an injury crisis that mounts by the day. During last week's league defeat by FC Shakhtar Donetsk, Dynamo lost two defenders as well as captain Vladislav Vaschuk and midfield player Sehiy Federov. Defender Olexandr Holovko and playmaker Valentin Byalkevich are also out for both legs against Pyunik. In fact, Vaschuk, who left the field against Shakhtar on a stretcher, has been ruled out for the rest of the season and Federov will be in plaster for two months after fracturing his foot.
By contrast, AC Sparta Praha have had exactly the start to the season they hoped for when they signed Karel Poborský on a free transfer from S.S. Lazio. He was outstanding in their first match of the 1. liga season, a 1-0 home win against last season's champions FK Teplice. Tonight they play host to Georgian champions FC Torpedo Kutaisi hoping that the midfield player can help them improve on last season's campaign, when they were eliminated at the second group stage.
Boavista FC also failed to progress past the second group stage last season. The Portuguese runners-up face the Maltese champions Hibernians FC, who enjoyed a historic victory in the first qualifying round against the Republic of Ireland's Shelbourne FC. The winners will find themselves up against AJ Auxerre in the next round.
FK Vardar and Legia Warszawa are fighting it out to see who will face FC Barcelona in the final qualifying round. The Polish side enjoyed a 9-0 aggregate defeat of Vardar in the competition in 1999, but the transfer of key players and injuries to the likes of Jacek Zielinski, Tomasz Lapinski, Radoslaw Wroblewski and Tomasz Sokolowski have left them seriously weakened.
Waiting for the winner of the tie between Zalaegerszegi TE and NK Zagreb is a plum draw against Manchester United FC. Ivan Katalinic watched his Zagreb side start the Prva HNL season with a 1-1 draw against NK Osijek on Friday before travelling to see the Hungarians draw their opener 3-3 with Kispest Honvéd FC. "The key battle is in midfield," he said. "If we can stop them then we can get through but if we don’t we’ll be in trouble."
Newcastle United FC await the winners of Lillestrøm SK and NK Zeljezicar. But the Bosnia-Herzegovnian side's coach, Amar Osim, is cautious after a trip to watch the Norwegians play in a domestic match. "We will be defensive and try to hit them on the break. It will be difficult but we are not giving up."
FC Dinamo Bucuresti have been training in France before their showdown with Club Brugge KV, the one club in this season's second qualifying round to have reached a European Champion Clubs' Cup final, when they lost to Liverpool FC 1-0 in 1978. Striker Claudiu Niculescu is likely to play despite a foot injury. The winners will face Shakhtar in the third qualifying round.
A possible upset could come in the form of Moldova's FC Sheriff Tiraspol who take on Grazer AK, the side who only qualified for the tournament after FC Tirol Innsbruck were forced to withdraw because of their ongoing financial problems. The remaining ties involve MŠK Zilina and FC Basel, who will be fighting for an attractive third qualifying round tie with Celtic FC; Maccabi Haifa and FC Belshina Bobruisk, who will face SK Sturm Graz; NK Maribor and APOEL Nicosia, who have AEK Athens waiting; and Brøndby IF and KS Dinamo Tirana, who would next face a tricky tie with Rosenborg BK.
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