Champions League Qualification Round 3

Celtic head up a list of big-name clubs teetering on the brink of elimination before the play-offs for the important Group Games begin, thrashed 3-0 at the hands of unheralded Portuguese club Braga.

Zenit St Petersburg of Russia (who won the UEFA Cup in 2007/08), Ajax Amsterdam of Holland and Turkish mainstays of Europe Fenerbahce – all teams recorded unexpected draws against Unirea Urziceni of Romania, PAOK of Greece and BSC Young Boys of Switzerland, and are set for tense return matches to remain in the competition.

Likely to progress straight to potential meetings with Tottenham Hotspur, Sampdoria, Sevilla, Werder Bremen and Auxerre are FC Basel (comfortable winners away from home against Debrecen), Partizan Belgrade, Dynamo Kyiv and Anderlecht (who saw off the spirited home challenge of Wales’ The New Saints in the first leg).

In the group stages already are some of the most renowned club sides (Real Madrid, AC Milan, Bayern Munich), some highly successful clubs (Manchester United, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Benfica) and some hopeful pretenders (Bursaspor, CFR Cluj, FC Twente).

With the Fifa Club Rankings dictating who will avoid who, it is already possible, at this early stage, to say who will head seven of the eight groups as top seeds. Based on UEFA coefficient, the ranking of clubs exists as follows:

1) Inter Milan (Italy) – awarded by UEFA as holders (actual coefficient would see them 6th)
2) FC Barcelona (Spain)
3) Manchester United (England)
4) Chelsea (England)
5) Arsenal (England)
6) Bayern Munich (Germany)
7) Sevilla (Spain)* Not yet qualified
8) AC Milan (Italy)

All teams except Sevilla have already qualified for the Group Stages and therefore will head their respective groups when the draw is made, unless Sevilla are beaten and their place taken by Olympique Lyonnais. The most striking omission of the competing clubs not to appear in the top 8 is Real Madrid; the most successful club in Champions League/European Cup football has performed so dismally for so many years that their ranking has finally sunk to 11th – the lowest it’s ever been.

For the others, lucky enough to be considered as second tier but not lucky enough to avoid playing one of the above, the rankings continue:

9) Olympique Lyonnais (France)
10) Werder Bremen (Germany)* Not yet qualified
11) Real Madrid (Spain)
12) AS Roma (Italy)
13) Shakthar Donetsk (Ukraine)
14) Benfica (Portugal)
15) Valencia (Spain)
16) Marseille (France)

Again, there is one team looking to qualify for the final stage – Werder Bremen. In prime position to take advantage of slip-ups from either Werder Bremen or Sevilla, Zenit St Petersburg, the already-qualified Panathinaikos, Tottenham and already-qualified Rangers are hanging to the tails of grabbing a place in the second seed pot.

Currently as third seeds are:

17) Zenit St Petersburg (Russia)* Not yet qualified
18) Panathinaikos (Greece)
19) Tottenham Hotspur (England)* Not yet qualified
20) Rangers (Scotland)
21) Ajax (Holland)* Not yet qualified
22) Fenerbahce (Turkey)* Not yet qualified
23) Shalke (Germany)
24) FC Basel (Switzerland)* Not yet qualified

Some famous others such as Sampdoria, Anderlecht and Sparta Prague await further down. But for now, this is the way the qualification is panning out.

But a curious fact is that it’s already more than possible to set up groups like this:

Group A)
Bayern Munich
Real Madrid
Tottenham Hotspur

While at the same time having this:

Group B)
Litex Lovech

I know which one sounds a more exciting prospect.

In the Europa League, as yet in a formative stage, all that is currently known are a list of clubs currently or soon to be competing, many of whom are normally associated with the top competition:

Liverpool, Juventus, Porto, Atletico Madrid, Villareal (how lucky they are…) PSV Eindhoven, Stuttgart, Sporting Lisbon, Olympiakos, Galatasaray, Borussia Dortmund, CSKA Moscow – all have suffered the relative ignominy of dropping out of the top competition.

For other clubs, there is even worse punishment. There will be no European football for Bordeaux, Lazio, Everton, Fiorentina, Monaco or Wolfsburg. While perhaps clubs like Liverpool and Juventus may feel downhearted at playing for a lesser trophy, it’s better to still be playing than not at all. Spare a thought for RCD Mallorca, though – after narrowly missing out on 4th place (and therefore Champions League football) in the last few moments of the last game of last season, their entrance to Europe via the Europa League was denied only weeks ago because of financial instability. Call it Gregorio Manazano’s revenge.