Five Champions League play-off round matches to keep an eye on
Dinamo Zagreb-Maribor, FC Copenhagen-Lille among matches to watch this week
This week's Champions League play-off match winners advance to the group stage
Anything seems possible after APOEL Nicosia reached the quarterfinals last year
While European league seasons are now getting under way, the continent's showpiece tournament, the Champions League, kicked off months ago: in fact, two days after Spain beat Italy in the Euro 2012 final. The big winners in the first qualifying round were Luxembourg's Dudelange (7-0 winners over Tre Penne) and Malta's Valletta (8-0 against Lusitans). Both have since been eliminated and this week sees some fascinating match-ups in the play-off round, with the winners reaching the holy grail -- and cash cow -- of the group stage. Here are five matches worth keeping an eye on:
The Turkish side is back in Europe after UEFA banned it last season following a match-fixing scandal (2011 runners-up Trabzonspor took its place), the repercussions of which are still being felt in Turkey. Fenerbahce president Aziz Yildirim was convicted and sentenced to six years and three months in prison on the charges, but has already (confusingly) been released for serving some of the last year in prison. Fener reached the quarterfinals in the 2007-08 edition, losing 3-2 on aggregate to Chelsea, and having boosted its ranks this summer with the likes of Dirk Kuyt, Milos Krasic and Mehmet Topal, will be hoping to beat the Russian runners-up. Spartak, meanwhile, have coaxed Spanish coach Unai Emery from Valencia but losing 5-0 to champions Zenit St. Petersburg was hardly ideal preparation. Spartak is five games into its new season, while Fener drew its opener on Saturday.
Lille has just banked €40 million for selling star player Eden Hazard to Chelsea, and has spent that money very wisely: bringing in Salomon Kalou, from the European champions, on a free, and signing Sochaux and France playmaker Marvin Martin for €8 million. Hazard scored 20 and created 15 of Lille's league goals last season, and so was involved in an astonishing 49 percent of its strikes; that's a huge loss to compensate and yet in Europe last season, Hazard struggled. Kalou's experience (along with Sergio Aguero, he was the only player last season to score in the Premier League, the Champions League, the FA Cup and the League Cup) should help Lille in Europe, as will the first match in its impressive new Stade Lille Metropole, which opened over the weekend. FC Copenhagen are current Danish league leaders who beat Club Brugge 3-2 in Belgium to reach the play-offs.
Quite simply, this is the biggest match in Malaga's history. The club's future has been shrouded in doubt ever since it emerged, in January, that non-payment of transfer fees had led to a winter transfer-window signing embargo. Malaga is heavily in debt to the Spanish tax office, hence the speedy summer sales of star players Jose Rondon to Rubin Kazan and Santi Cazorla to Arsenal. But they have not been the only losses: last February, director Jose Carlos Perez, a key figure in the club's running, died, while in the summer the man he appointed as sporting director, former Spain captain Fernando Hierro, stepped down as he was no longer "comfortable" with his role. Ruud van Nistelrooy and Joris Mathijsen were among four players who complained to the players' union about not receiving wages. Malaga debutant Fabrice Olinga became La Liga's youngest ever scorer, aged 16 years and 98 days, with the decisive goal in the weekend win over Celta Vigo. With clubs interested in buying the likes of Nacho Monreal, Jeremy Toulalan and Isco, Malaga's only chance of keeping the team together lies in getting past the Greek side, whose European credentials are far more impressive than that of its domestic rival Olympiakos.
Dinamo was on the receiving end of one of last season's most peculiar results, a 7-1 defeat to Lyon which, coupled with Ajax's 3-0 loss at Real Madrid, saw the French team dramatically make the knock-out phase. Dinamo owner Zdravko Mamic sacked coach Krunoslav Jurcic after the game, while the Spanish press insinuated that strange things were afoot: "It was suspicious, bizarre and weird," wrote newspaper Sport. Mamic vigorously denied any wrongdoing, though he has twice been investigated, and cleared, of match-fixing by UEFA after Dinamo's 3-0 Champions League loss to Arsenal in August 2006, and a 2009 Europa League loss to Poli Timisoara. UEFA also punished him after he celebrated a Champions League qualifying win over Ekranes by giving a Nazi salute. The Croatian FA once even gave him a lifetime ban (since forgotten, rather than overturned) for attacking one of its directors. Mamic makes Maribor sporting director Zlatko Zahovic, Slovenia's most talented player, look positively angelic. Zahovic, you may remember was sent home from the 2002 World Cup after telling coach Srecko Katanec: "I can buy you, your house and your family."
It's not often that BATE are considered favourites for a European tie but the Belarussian champion does at least have experience of Champions League group stage football, as it faced Barcelona and AC Milan last season. Standing in its way is Hapoel Kiryat Shmona, the first title-winning side from outside Israel's big three cities, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, since Maccabi Netanya in 1983. Kiryat Shmona is based in Galilee, in an area known more for being on the receiving-end of Katyusha rockets fired from nearby Lebanon than anything else, and its rise has been incredible. With a squad based of mainly home-grown players, it romped to the title last season, shrugged off the loss of coach Ben Shimon in the summer and, under new boss Gil Landau, has already beaten MSK Zilina (Slovakia) and Neftci Baku (Azerbaijan) to reach this stage. After Cypriot side APOEL Nicosia reached the quarterfinals last season, anything is possible but for Hapoel Kiryat Shmona to even reach the group stage would be a plot worthy of a Hollywood script.
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