The UEFA Champions League enters uncharted territory this week when the new format of the third qualifying round gets under way with the likes of FC Shakhtar Donetsk and Celtic FC joining the fray.
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The UEFA Champions League enters uncharted territory this week when the new format of the third qualifying round gets under way with the likes of FC Shakhtar Donetsk, Celtic FC and Sporting Clube de Portugal joining the fray.
The 17 winners from the second qualifying round – all of whom are national titleholders – will play in the Champions Path side of the draw, their numbers swelled by the addition of FC Zürich, Olympiacos CFP and SK Slavia Praha. Joining at the same stage but in the Non-Champions Path section are ten sides who were drawn against each other on 17 July. All clubs are aiming for a place in the similarly split play-off round which will determine the ten teams which complete the group-stage lineup.
Four of the 15 games take place tonight including a rematch between AC Sparta Praha and Panathinaikos FC who met in the third qualifying round last year, the Greek side running out 3-1 aggregate winners. As in 2008, the first leg will be played in the Czech Republic and the hosts will be looking to make amends for last season's 2-1 home loss. Elsewhere this evening, Turkish side Sivasspor, who have played just two European ties previously, make their competition bow against RSC Anderlecht, veterans of exactly 300 more games on the continent than their rivals. Meanwhile, 2006/07 group-stage participants Maccabi Haifa FC visit FK Aktobe in the Champions Path.
The bulk of the fixtures follow on Wednesday with some intriguing ties on both sides of the draw. The final UEFA Cup winners Shakhtar welcome Romanian competition debutants FC Timişoara while Sporting meet Eredivisie runners-up FC Twente. Another tight contest is in the offing when Celtic face FC Dinamo Moskva, which might bring back memories for the Scottish side of their dramatic penalty shoot-out win against FC Spartak Moskva in the third qualifying round two season ago.
In the Champions Path, the meeting between Denmark's FC København and Norway's Stabæk IF is one of the standout fixtures along with Olympiacos CFP's visit to ŠK Slovan Bratislava. FC Salzburg prepare to take on NK Dinamo Zagreb and last season's surprise group-stage qualifiers FC BATE Borisov make the trip north to Latvia for a first leg against FK Ventspils. Finally, something will have to give when APOEL FC meet FK Partizan after the two clubs combined to put 17 goals past their second qualifying round opposition for no reply.