Before the preliminary round of the 2019-20 Champions League even kicks off, UEFA has drawn the matchups for the first (and second) qualifying rounds of the tournament. The clubs joining the competition during this round were the 31 champions of the associations ranked 20-51 (excluding Liechtenstein) according to their association’s UEFA coefficient. They are the only clubs from their associations in the Champions League, and the majority of them will see their European season end in Europa League, as losers here will find themselves in the second qualifying round of that tournament.
The UEFA competitions move pretty quick through the qualification rounds in order to reach the group stages in September. The qualifying rounds in Champions League will each be played over two legs over consecutive weeks from 9 July through 28 August, leading up to the group stage draw (from Monaco) on 29 August.
We’re not going to spend a lot of time on these early round games, but we will introduce you to the participants (expanding on our list of qualifiers), as well as covering recent performance for the clubs in European competition. The clubs are listed in order of UEFA coefficient, which determined whether or not they were seeded for the draw.
Celtic won the Scottish Premiership last season for the eighth straight season (and 50th time overall). They’ve also found some success in Europe in their history, remaining the only Scottish club to ever win a European competition after winning the 1967 European Cup (the precursor to Champions League). They were also a finalist in the 2003 UEFA Cup (the precursor to Europa League). They’ve had mixed success recently however, though they did reach the group stage during the 2017-18 and 2016-17 tournaments. Last season, they lost in the third qualifying round to AEK Athens, and made it to the Round of 32 in Europa League, losing to Valencia.
Sarajevo won their fourth title in the Premier League of Bosnia and Herzegovina last season, and their first title since 2014-15. As such, they haven’t been in Champions League since 2015-16, and departed after an opening round loss to Lech Poznań. The last two seasons, they have played in Europa League, ultimately reaching the second qualifying round last season before losing to Atalanta. They have never won more than three rounds in European competition.
Another regular participant in Europe, BATE Borisov has won 13 straight Belarusian Premier League titles. They are the only Belarusian club to have qualified for the group stage of the Champions League (five times; last in 2015-16), and join Dinamo Minsk as the only Belarusian clubs to qualify for the Europa League group stage (four times, including last season). Last season, they lost in the playoff round of the Champions League, falling to PSV Eindhoven, then joined Europa League in the group stage, where they finished second in Group L behind eventual winner Chelsea. They then lost in the Round of 32 to finalist Arsenal, despite winning leg one.
Piast Gliwice won the Ekstraklasa (Poland) for the first time last season, and haven’t played in Europe since an appearance in the 2016-17 Europa League. Their history in Europe is limited – they’ve only spent 10 total seasons in the top flight of Polish football – and they are still looking for their first victory in European competition. This draw will be tough for them.
Astana was founded in 2009; in their short 10 year history – completed seasons only; they just began their 2019 season in March – they’ve never finished below 5th in the 12 club Kazakhstan Premier League. They’ve also won five consecutive titles, resulting in five straight trips to the Champions League. They’ve reached the group stage once – a fourth place finish in 2015-16 – but have tended to do more damage in Europa League. Last season, they reached the third qualifying round in Champions League, falling to Dinamo Zagreb. After defeating APOEL in the Europa League playoff round, they finished third in their group, missing out on advancing with a loss on matchday six.
For the second consecutive season, CFR Cluj was the champion of Liga 1 (Romania), winning their fifth overall title since reaching the top level of Romanian football. Therefore, they will be back in the Champions League for the second consecutive season, and hope to last longer than the one round they did last season. They ended just short of the group stage in Europa League last season, falling to F91 Dudelange in the playoff round.
Bulgarian champion Ludogorets Razgrad won their eighth consecutive Bulgarian First League title last season, and are therefore back in the Champions League for the 8th consecutive year. They’ve made it as far as the Champions League group stage (2014-15 and 2016-17), and the Round of 16 in Europa League (2013-14). Last season, they lost to MOL Vidi in the second qualifying round of Champions League, then reached the group stage of Europa League, where they finished fourth after failing to win a match.
Ferencváros returned to the top of the Nemzeti Bajnokság I (Hungary) last season, winning their second title of the decade. Their last trip to the Champions League was not a long one, though they didn’t lose in two matches against Partizani, with the clubs drawing both legs 1-1 and Partizani advancing after winning the penalty shootout. Last season, the Green Eagles qualified for Europa League, losing to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the first qualifying round.
Another champion coming off consecutive championships, Qarabağ has won the Azerbaijan Premier League for six consecutive seasons. They reached the Champions League group stage for the first (and only) time during the 2017-18 season, the first club from Azerbaijan to do so, though they finished in fourth place. Last season, they lost to BATE Borisov in the third qualifying round of Champions League, but reached the group stage in Europa League, where they also finished fourth (though they managed to win a match this time around).
Partizani won the Albanian Superliga last season for the first time since the early 1990s. They did qualify for the Champions League after a second place finish in 2015-16, but only after Skënderbeu Korçë was banned from the competition after match-fixing allegations. They won one round, defeating Ferencváros, before losing to Red Bull Salzburg. Last season, they qualified for Europa League, losing in the first qualifying round to Maribor.
Speaking of Maribor, they returned to the top of the Slovenian First League this past season, and have won seven of the last ten league titles. They finished second last season, meaning they went to Europa League, where they advanced to the third qualifying round before losing to Rangers. When they were last in Champions League (during the 2017-18 season), they made it to the group stage for the third time (and remain the only Slovenian club to reach the group stage), finishing fourth in their group with a 0-3-3 record.
Valur won their second consecutive Icelandic Championship last season (but only their third this century), and will look to improve on their one-and-done trip to Champions League from last season. They did win a round when they went over to Europa League, defeating Andorra’s FC Santa Coloma, before ending their European campaign with a loss to Sheriff Tiraspol in the third qualifying round.
One of our favorite clubs in last year’s Champions League, Red Star is back in this year’s iteration after another Serbian SuperLiga title, their second in a row and fifth overall. The club is the only one from Eastern Europe that has one the European Cup (now the Champions League) after they won back in 1991 while part of Yugoslavia. Last season, Red Star was the only club that started in the first qualifying round to reach the Champions League group stage. They even beat eventual winner Liverpool in Belgrade during the group stage, though it didn’t end up mattering as they finished fourth in their group. Here’s hoping they find a way to reach that point again this season.
Lithuanian champion FK Sūduva (for the second consecutive season, their only A Lyga titles to this point) will face a tough matchup against the much more experienced Serbians. In fact, Red Star was the club that sent them packing from the Champions League last season, winning 5-0 on aggregate during the second qualifying round. Sūduva then came up a bit short of the group stage in Europa, falling to Celtic in the playoff round.
UPDATE: For the second season in a row, Red Star Belgrade sends Suduva packing from Champions League. After a scoreless draw in Lithuania during leg one, Red Star scored two first half goals and held on to win 2-1 in Belgrade during leg two, advancing by that score on aggregate.
In their 21 seasons in the top level of Moldovan football, Sheriff Tiraspol has won the title 17 times, including the last four. That league success has not translated to success in Champions League, with the club never reaching the group stage. Last season, they lost in the second qualifying round to Shkëndija from North Macedonia, then reached the playoff round of Europa League, losing to Qarabağ. Over 108 matches played in Europe, they have a middling 28-33-47 record, so a favorable draw would be a huge help this season to start adding some wins to that overall record. They may have got their wish with their opening match.
A relatively young squad (founded in 1999), Saburtalo Tbilisi will be competing in Champions League for the first time ever after winning the Erovnuli Liga (Georgia) for the first time last season. I wouldn’t expect their stay to be long in this year’s Champions League, but they are currently leading their league at the halfway point, so they could be making this a recurring thing.
UPDATE: Saburtalo Tbilisi had quite the auspicious debut in Champions League, winning 3-0 in Moldova during leg one. However, Sheriff Tiraspol returned the favor in leg two, going out to a 3-0 lead in the first 12 minutes of action from Tbilisi. The clubs remained tied until Ognjen Rolovic scored in the 59th minute, giving the Champions League rookies the 4-3 win on aggregate.
So as to not make this post terribly unwieldy, we’ll be continuing with a Part 2. There, you’ll find the other 16 participants in the first qualifying round with their respective matchups. Be sure to check it out.
Until next time…
Last update: 16 July 2019 at 5:00pm EST