Journey to the Theatre of Dreams

The new UEFA Champions League season starts today as 20 hopefuls contest the first qualifying round on the road to next year's final in Manchester.

It may be the height of summer but another season of UEFA Champions League action starts tonight when 20 hopeful teams do battle in the tournament's first qualifying round.

In the spotlight
Over ten months before the spotlight falls on Old Trafford, Manchester, the so-called Theatre of Dreams where the final will be played on 28 May next year, this is the first of three qualifying rounds before the first group stage begins on 17 September. Tonight's ten first-leg ties are followed by the return matches on Wednesday week.

History makers
History will be made in Moldova where FC Zhenis Astana will become the first side from Kazakhstan, UEFA's newest member association, to take part in Europe's premier club competition in their tie at FC Sheriff Tiraspol. The match also marks the opening of the Tiraspol club's new 15,000-capacity Sheriff Arena.  

Chasing first victory
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, FK Zeljeznicar are hoping for a little piece of history of their own against Iceland's ÍA Akranes. After three successive failures at this stage, Zeljeznicar are still chasing their first victory in the Champions League, and they do so at neighbours FK Sarajevo's Olympic Stadium, their own ground having failed to meet the UEFA standard.

Brazilian magic
FK Vardar, the champions of F.Y.R. Macedonia, are hoping a bit of Brazilian magic will help swing their tie against F91 Dudelange as they field their main summer recruit, Rogerio de Costa Oliveira, in Luxembourg. Braga, Dudelange's own Brazilian, albeit now a Luxembourg citizen, is doubtful due to injury. Vardar coach Gjoko Hadzievski said his team would "play to win" and added: "Our first goal is to score first."

Sirmelis optimistic
FBK Kaunas may have lost midfield player Vadim Petrenko to Czech side SK Sigma Olomouc but the Lithuanians' coach, Saulis Sirmelis, is optimistic they can progress against Albania's KS Dinamo Tirana, whom they face at home tonight. "We will hope to complete the task in the first match at home and score as many goals as possible," he said.

Doubts for Flora
Latvia's FC Skonto welcome back from injury wing-back Olegs Blagonadezdins and striker Maris Verpakovskis just in time for their meeting with Barry Town FC in Riga. Across the border in Tallinn, Estonian champions FC Flora may not be so lucky. Ahead of their tie against Cypriot club APOEL Nicosia FC they have doubts over several first-choice players. Winger Aleksandr Tarassenkov is sidelined with a thigh problem, while defender Raio Piiroja and forward Aleksandr Kulik could also miss out.

Shtelin expects to win
FC Torpedo Kutaisi's new Ukrainian coach Aleksandr Shtelin is unable to call on defender Vakhtang Khvadagiani, banned for four European matches following violent conduct in last year's tie against Linfield FC. It is a beating of a different kind that the Georgians are seeking to administer against B36 Tórshavn of the Faroe Islands and Shtelin is confident they can do it. "Tórshavn are not the sort of opponent we cannot beat," he said.

Back to business
Elsewhere, Maltese champions Hibernians FC entertain the Republic of Ireland's Shelbourne FC, Northern Ireland's Portadown FC take on FC Belshina Bobruisk of Belarus, while in Finland Tampere United FC play Armenia's FC Pyunik. If the thoughts of many across Europe are turning to summer holidays, for the Champions League it is a case of back to business.