The UEFA Champions League third qualifying round lineup will be decided tonight when the second stage ends.
By Michael Harrold
The group stage of the UEFA Champions League seems tantalisingly close for many sides following last Friday's draw for the third qualifying round.
With potential opponents already known, it is difficult not to look beyond tonight's remaining 12 second qualifying round fixtures to see who lies in wait. But for coaches across Europe, the priority is to keep their sides focused on the task in hand.
For the likes of FC Steaua Bucuresti coach Oleg Protasov that has not been easy. Many in Romania are already relishing the prospect of playing Rosenborg BK for a place in the group stage, but as Protasov points out, Shelbourne FC must first be defeated. The Irish title winners held the former European champions to a goalless draw in the first leg and cannot be counted out just yet.
Serbo-Montenegrin champions FK Partizan take a 1-0 lead to Tiraspol for their second leg against FC Sheriff. The winners face FC Artmedia Bratislava, surprise conquerors of Celtic FC, in the third round. The draw has opened up nicely for Partizan following Celtic’s defeat, but the Moldovan champions remain a real threat to the Serbian side’s hopes of reaching the group stage for a second time in three years.
CSKA eye Liverpool
Like Artmedia, Liverpool FC are already through to the third round after defeating FBK Kaunas yesterday. The Champions League holders have been drawn against either PFC CSKA Sofia or KF Tirana, and with the Bulgarian champions already 2-0 up from the away leg, talk in Sofia has already turned to Rafael Benítez's side.
Artmedia’s defeat of Celtic may be the shock of the round but it may also turn out to be just the first of a number of upsets. FC Thun go into their second leg with FC Dynamo Kyiv confident of progressing after drawing 2-2 in Ukraine. The winners will take on either Malmö FF or Maccabi Haifa FC, with the Swedish side narrow 3-2 leaders with the second leg in Israel to come.
Cypriot side Anorthosis Famagusta FC have already surpassed expectations with their 3-1 first-leg defeat of Turkey’s Trabzonspor. Scottish champions Rangers FC, who will face the winners of that tie, will be watching the second leg with interest.
Macedonian champions FK Rabotnicki will aim to impress again after holding FC Lokomotiv Moskva to a 1-1 draw in Skopje. Club Brugge KV, meanwhile, are next in line for either Vålerenga IF or FC Haka, with the Norwegian side leading 1-0 ahead of the return leg in Finland.
RSC Anderlecht, SK Rapid Wien, Brøndby IF and Debreceni VSC will all feel confident of progressing after comfortable first-leg wins against PFC Neftchi, F91 Dudelange, FC Dinamo Tbilisi and HNK Hajduk Split respectively.