Kazakhstan's FC Shakhter Karagandy lead the group of minnows hoping to move one step closer to the UEFA Champions League group stage when the second qualifying round concludes on Tuesday and Wednesday.
After earning an unexpected first-leg lead against last season's group-stage participants FC BATE Borisov, Shakhter – along with fellow unfancied teams like FK Sutjeska, FC Shirak and JK Nõmme Kalj – have a great chance of joining the stellar names of Olympique Lyonnais, FC Zenit St Petersburg and PSV Eindhoven in the third qualifying round.
Indeed, the first game to kick off on Tuesday will be in Karagandy where Shakhter will try to defend the 1-0 victory they secured – courtesy of Sergei Khizhnichenko's strike – against opponents who had beaten FC Bayern München in Belarus last season. The Kazakh title holders fell at this stage last term but will take heart from the fact they have lost just once in five previous home matches in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League.
Nor are BATE throwing in the towel as they aim to make the group stage for a fourth time, with midfielder Aleksandr Pavlov saying of last week's setback in Borisov: "It is not the end of this tie."
Armenia's Shirak face a tougher task to qualify in their first UEFA Champions League campaign since 2004/05. Nonetheless they are firmly in contention following a home draw with Serbia's FK Partizan. Vardan Bichakhchyan's men would even have taken a slender advantage to Belgrade but for Vladimir Volkov's 93rd-minute equaliser last week.
Elsewhere, competition debutants Sutjeska of Montenegro will host FC Sheriff having earned a 1-1 draw in Moldova while fellow first-timers Kalju from Estonia also sense an opportunity after holding HJK Helsinki to a 0-0 draw in Finland. If the fates of some big names are uncertain, other clubs will be more confident of easing through, with FC Dinamo Tbilisi, GNK Dinamo Zagreb, FC Steaua Bucureşti, IF Elfsborg and Celtic FC carrying hefty leads into their second legs.
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