For a trio of teams participating in the UEFA Champions League play-offs, the sense of anticipation might be particularly keenly felt. In the case of English hopefuls Tottenham Hotspur FC, it is fully 48 years since they graced Europe's elite club competition but now only BSC Young Boys stand in their way of a place in the group stage. Similarly, AJ Auxerre and UC Sampdoria – who face FC Zenit St. Petersburg and SV Werder Bremen respectively – can also scent a return to a tournament where each has made an impact in the past.
Jean Fernandez's Bleu et Blanc (Blue and Whites) earned their play-off ticket with a third-place finish in Ligue 1 last season, putting themselves within sight of a third UEFA Champions League appearance. Unlike Sampdoria and Spurs, they have taken part in the competition in the last decade – in the 2002/03 group stage – although you have to go back to 1996/97 for their best performance, in what was their only other campaign.
Having won a first Ligue 1 title as part of their 1996 French double success, Guy Roux's side progressed to the quarter-finals that year before losing to eventual champions Borussia Dortmund. It was not the first time Dortmund had got the better of the team from Burgundy – Auxerre's best-ever European run, to the 1992/93 UEFA Cup semi-finals, ended with a shoot-out defeat by the Bundesliga club.
Sampdoria may have featured only once before on Europe's top table but they left their mark on their debut in 1991/92, going all the way to the final before a narrow extra-time defeat by FC Barcelona. En route the Genoese outfit beat holders FK Crvena Zvezda home and away in what was the the first-ever group stage of a tournament then in its final season as the European Champion Clubs' Cup.
That was the culmination of an impressive era of success for 'Samp' in Europe under Vujadin Boškov – with appearances in the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup finals in 1989 and 1990, the latter bringing victory over RSC Anderlecht and a first continental honour. Now the Blucerchiati (Blue Hoops) seek a return to the spotlight and will hope coach Domenico Di Carlo can take them the final step after Luigi Delneri steered them to Serie A's fourth spot in 2009/10.
Tottenham Hotspur FC
Tottenham became the first English club to lift a European trophy when they demolished Club Atlético de Madrid 5-1 in the 1963 Cup Winners' Cup final, and they added two more pieces of silverware in the following decades with UEFA Cup triumphs in 1972 and 1984. However, the north London side have sparkled less in recent times, seeing neighbours Arsenal FC overshadow them at home and abroad.
By finishing fourth in the Premier League in May, though, Harry Redknapp's team are hoping to emulate the great Spurs ensemble of the early 1960s who besides their Cup Winners' Cup triumph enjoyed a memorable season in the 1961/62 European Cup – Bill Nicholson's domestic double winners advancing to the last four before falling 4-3 to eventual champions SL Benfica. Their fans might not expect a similar run this time, nor even a repeat of the 8-1 rout of Polish side Górnik Zabrze in the preliminary round, but any kind of victory that gets them past Young Boys and into the group stage will do.
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