The draw for the play-off round was completed on 5 August, but with only two teams known at that time – new additions Young Boys (Switzerland) and Slavia Prague (Czech Republic) – it didn’t make much sense to publish something with a mostly empty slate. With the conclusion of the third qualifying round, however, we are officially two weeks away from knowing all the participants of the Champions League group stage.
The six winners from this round will join the heavyweights that qualified directly for the group stage when that action kicks off on 17 September, with the draw taking place 29 August at the conclusion of the play-off round.
Three of the twelve competitors in this round have been playing in Europe for six weeks, and whether or not that gives them an advantage remains to be seen. Either way, CFR Cluj, Red Star Belgrade, and Rosenborg are the only clubs remaining from the first qualifying round. Last season, there were two, with only one – Red Star Belgrade – advancing on to the group stage.
As with the previous two rounds, there remains two paths for the participants: The “Champions Path” features clubs that won their respective league last season, while the “League Path” features clubs that finished near the top (at least for the top 15 associations). Losers from the “Champions Path” will enter the Europa League playoff round, while the “League Path” losers will move to the Europa League group stage.
Here’s a look at all the matchups this round:
In last season’s play-off round, Croatian champion Dinamo Zagreb was defeated by Young Boys, ultimately bowing out in the Round of 16 in Europa League. Last round, after a 1-1 draw at home in leg one to Ferencváros, they traveled to Budapest and won handily in a 4-0 victory to clinch a spot in the playoff. Through four matches this season, they are 3-1-0, while scoring 10 goals and allowing only one.
Rosenborg also had a dominant performance in the third qualifying round, defeating Maribor 6-2 on aggregate with two identical 3-1 victories. This marks their first appearance in the play-off round since the 2010-11 season, and they are seeking to play in their first Champions League group stage since the 2007-08 season. In six matches thus far, they are 5-0-1, surrendering only three goals while scoring 12.
CFR Cluj reached the play-off round thanks to a win over Celtic during the prior round. They won leg two 4-3 in Glasgow to advance, scoring the clinching goal in the 80th minute (with a bonus goal seven minutes into added time to add insult to injury). This is their first play-off round appearance since the 2012-13 season, which was also the last time they reached the group stage. They have compiled a 3-2-1 record through three rounds this season.
Slavia Prague, champions of the Czech First League, join the tournament one round further than last season, a loss to Dynamo Kyiv in the third qualifying round. Nevertheless, they followed that disappointing loss with a trip to the Europa League quarterfinals, where they lost to Chelsea, the eventual champion. They have not played in the Champions League group stage since the 2007-08 season.
Last season, Young Boys joined in this round and advanced to the group stage with a victory over Dinamo Zagreb, only to finish fourth in their group. That was their first appearance in the group stage, as well as their first win in the play-off round.
Red Star Belgrade snuck past Copenhagen in the third qualifying round, advancing on penalty kicks after finishing both legs in 1-1 draws. Last season, they were a little more dominant through three rounds (4-2-0; +8 goal differential) compared to this season (2-3-1; +2 GD), but they are in their second consecutive play-off round and look to improve on last season’s fourth place finish in the group stage.
APOEL scored a late goal in leg one against Qarabağ, then the only two goals in leg two to advance 3-2 on aggregate. They reached the group stage as recently as 2017-18, and they faced off against Ajax in the 2014-15 Champions League group stage, finishing with a 0-1-1 record, including a 4-0 loss, on their way to a fourth place finish in the group.
Ajax held on to defeat PAOK in the last round, advancing 5-4 on aggregate. They netted their fifth goal on a PK in the 85th minute, then held their breath through a Greek onslaught, which resulted in a late goal that cut the lead to one. PAOK couldn’t find a third goal of their own, however, and they are off to Europa League while Ajax continues along the Champions League path.
For a club that doesn’t frequent European competition, LASK made quite an impression in their return to the Champions League last round. They defeated Basel in both legs, advancing 5-2 on aggregate. This is only their second appearance ever in Champions League (the prior season was over 50 years ago during the 1965-66 season), so an appearance in the group stage would be quite a feat.
To do so, they’ll have to defeat Club Brugge, a club with a much more robust European history. Last season, they began Champions League competition during the group stage, finishing third in their group behind Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, and then losing in the Europa League Round of 32 to Red Bull Salzburg. During the third qualifying round, they defeated Dynamo Kyiv 4-3 on aggregate, sealing the victory with a goal five minutes into added time.
Olympiacos easily handled İstanbul Başakşehir in the third qualifying round, advancing 3-0 on aggregate. A win against Krasnodar would return the Greek club to the group stage for the first time since they qualified there directly for the 2015-16 tournament. They are now 3-1-0 during this year’s competition, scoring seven goals without surrendering any.
Krasnodar scored three first half goals in leg two against Porto during the third qualifying round, then held on to advance on away goals when Porto added two goals in the second half. Not a bad showing for a club making their Champions League debut, though they did play in the past five Europa League tournaments, matching their best performance with last season’s Round of 16 appearance.
Until next time…
Last Update: 14 August 2019