The Champions League will begin in earnest in the autumn after the start of the new season, but for many European clubs the campaign kicks off much earlier. And so the midweek football programme in mid-July is dominated by the preliminary qualifying rounds of the Champions League and Europa League.
These qualification rounds can be extremely tough to navigate, but certain teams from the ‘lesser’ footballing nations across Europe are becoming accustomed to this route to the top table of the UCL. Winners of the leagues in countries such as Poland, Denmark and Bulgaria are not guaranteed a place in the group stages of the Champions League, but must first make their way through qualifying rounds.
The first round was completed by 5th July, and the first legs of the second round are being played this week. Legia Warsaw, Ludogorets Razgrad and FC Copenhagen are three sides entering the competition at this stage, and as many will remember, each of them competed in the tournament proper last term. They are all playing against teams with little or no experience of Champions League qualifying rounds, and although all three are on the road, they are worth backing to take commanding first leg leads.
IFK Mariehamn v Legia Warsaw
It would be lard to forget Warsaw’s contribution to the UCL last season, after they played out some extraordinary games with the likes of Dortmund and Real Madrid. The German side beat The Polish 6-0 in their opening group match before the pair went on to contest an 8-4 victory for Dortmund which broke all sorts of records. Real Madrid beat Legia 5-1 in Spain, but the Polish side grabbed a historic 3-3 draw with the eventual winners of the tournament in the return fixture on home soil. A victory over Sporting saw them claim a win and a total of four points – an impressive return despite being knocked out at the group stage.
Legia won three qualifying rounds to reach the group stages last summer, beating Zrinjski, Trencin and Dundalk. They won the away legs against the latter pair, having been held to a 0-0 draw by the former.
This will be Mariehamn’s first foray into the Champions League after a maiden Finnish league title last year. They won the domestic trophy by three points from regular winners HJK Helsinki, and this is a huge adventure for a club that only reached the Finnish Premier League in 2005 and plays its games in front of a capacity crowd of 4,000. It will be a tough game for the Poles in those circumstances, but Legia have won eight of their last nine on the road and can do the business on Wednesday night.
Zalgiris Vilnius v Ludogorets Razgrad
BetVictor are offering -182 about Bulgarian side Ludogorets coming out on top against Lithuanians Zalgiris.
Arsenal fans will remember Ludogorets from last season’s group stage – the Gunners beat them 6-0 at home, but were given a scare in a 3-2 away win. Draws with Basel (twice) and PSG brought an air of respectability to the Bulgarian’s second Champinos League campaign in three seasons, and they will be keen to experience more of the same. Qualification rounds last year saw them win two away legs before an away draw with Czech side Plzen, and they should be good enough to win in the road here.
Zalgiris have been knocked out at this stage in each of the last three seasons, beaten by Dinamo Zagreb and Malmo in previous years and by Astana last season. They held Astana to a 0-0 draw in home soil, but were beaten in front of their own fans by Zagreb and Malmo, and failed to win a single qualification game over the last three years.
Zilina v FC Copenhagen
Finally, Leicester fans will be familiar with Danish side FC Copenhagen, and they are backed to beat Zilina at -115 again with BetVictor.
Copenhagen only lost one match in group G last term and finished with nine points from two wins over Club Brugges, and draws with Porto (twice) and Leicester. The English and Portuguese clubs both outscored Copenhagen, but they could be forgiven for feeling a little luckless considering they amassed the same points total as Manchester City and more than Benfica – both of whom progressed to the knockout stages in other groups. In qualification last year Copenhagen were held to away draws by Astra and APOEL, but at the corresponding stage they beat Crusaders 3-0 away.
Slovakian side Zilina haven’t experienced Champions League football since 2010 when they lined up in a group with Chelsea and Marseille. Their only other appearance since was in a defeat at this stage of qualification to Ironi Kiryat Shmona in 2012.
Legia Warsaw to beat IFK Mariehamn
Wednesday 12th July, 19:00 GMT
Ludogorets Razgrad to beat Zalgiris Vilnius
Wednesday 12th July, 19:00 GMT
FC Copenhagen to beat Zilina
Wednesday 12th July, 19:15 GMT