The qualifiers for the group stage of the Champions League continued today, and what a great evening it was! If in Austria, Red Bull Salzburg confirmed their superiority and demolished Shkendija (3-0), the other two games had drama from the start to the end.
In Greece, PAOK found themselves losing 0-2 before the minute 20 with a goal from Ivelin Popov and the other from the Dutch star Quincy Promes. The Russians were in a good position but they certainty did not wait for what was about to come. In the 29th minute Prijovic scored from the penalty spot and 8 minutes after Limnios scored the 2-2 after a great work on the right side of Leo Matos. The Brazilian had an amazing first half and on the 44th minute he once again destroyed the Russian defense. His effort was saved by Maksimenko but Pelkas was in the right place to get the rebound and sent the ball into the back of the net. 5 goals in a crazy first half!
In the second half Spartak tried to react and on the 70th minute Promes had a golden opportunity to score from the penalty spot but the Greek goalkeeper Alexandros Paschalakis reacted superbly and denied the goal with an amazing save. 3-2 was the final score and the Greek will try to do in Moscow the same they did in Basel, score an early goal and put extra pressure on Spartak.
In the other game with a Greek team fighting for a spot in the Champions League group stage, AEK Athens traveled to Scotland to play against Celtic. And just like it happened with PAOK, the first minutes were very tough, Celtic had a few chances and on the 17th minute Callum McGregor opened the score. The home team continued to pressure with tons of crosses and middle range shots. In the last 5 minutes of the first half AEK finally managed to get away from the pressure, with Helder Lopes as the main protagonist. First the Portuguese fullback saw his shot saved by Craig Gordon, but on the 44th minute he found Klonaridis with a perfect cross and the Belgian scored the 1-1.
The second half was more of the same, with Celtic attacking with all their heart. Things got even harder for AEK when on the 57th minute Galanopoulos was sent off after a 2nd yellow card in less than 10 minutes. The home team had several chances but a heroic performance allows the Greek side to go back home with the away goal advantage. Is also known that Celtic is a much better team at home, so this time they will need to be much better in Greece than what they usually are in the away matches if they want to go trough.
In the first year where teams from Spain, England, Italy, Germany and France do not need to go through the qualifiers, we have 6 open spots for the group stage.
In the League path we have 3 of the top teams in the same bracket, as from Benfica, Fenerbahce and Spartak Moscow only one team might reach the group stage. PAOK was also quite impressive in the last qualifying so is not out of question they can upset two of those teams.
In the Champions Path everything looks quite open, with only PSV looking to be a clear favorite. Celtic has a complicated way to the group stage as they have to face AEK Athens and most probably Malmo.
The 3rd qualifying stage will be played on 7/8 August and 14 August. The final playoff will be on 21 and 28 August.
PAOK had a very dominant win this evening, beating Basel 3-0. The Greek side was traveling to Switzerland with a short advantage after the 2-1 win at home but on the 7th minute a Petkas corner found the Cape Verdean Fernando Varela who opened the score.
After that the game went on a very typical way, with Basel pushing with everything but giving space for the counters. And was from one of those moves that Prijovic scored the second in the beginning of the second half and killed the game. 6 minutes later El Kaddouri with a nice shot from outside the box scored the 3rd. PAOK will now face Spartak Moscow in the next round.
On the other games the only surprise was the elimination of Ludogorets in the hands of the Hungarian side MOL Vidi. After the 0-0 of the first hand, a Hadzic goal was enough to seal the qualifying for the next round. Maybe the name MOL Vidi does not tell you a lot as this club was until recently known as Videoton. Their main sponsor is the Hungarian oil and gas multinational MOL, so for this reason they had to change their name.
Completed this round we now know the 10 games of the third qualifying round of the Champions League:
Celtic (SCO) v AEK Athens (GRE)
Salzburg (AUT) v Shkëndija (MKD)
Crvena zvezda (SRB) v Spartak Trnava (SVK)
Qarabağ (AZE) v BATE Borisov (BLR)
Astana (KAZ) v Dinamo Zagreb (CRO)
Malmö (SWE) v Vidi (HUN)
Standard Liège (BEL) v Ajax (NED)
Benfica (POR) v Fenerbahçe (TUR)
Slavia Praha (CZE) v Dynamo Kyiv (UKR)
PAOK (GRE) v Spartak Moskva (RUS)
Dinamo Zagreb, Shkendija and Trnava already guaranteed their place in the next round of qualifiers for the Champions League and today we have 9 more matches.
Our attention will be in Switzerland where Basel receives PAOK after a 2-1 defeat in Greece. That game caused big changes with Basel’s head coach Raphael Wicky losing his job.
Celtic, Ajax and Red Star are in a good position to advance after their home wins, with Malmo also in a favorable position after their away win again Cluj. The next round will be played on the 7th/8th and 14th of August and we will have a few extra high rated teams such as Benfica, Spartak Moscow, Dynamo Kyiv and Fenerbahce.
Before the fancy teams start fighting for the Champions League title, dozens of other clubs give their best for a place in the group stage of the competition. For most of these teams who are playing qualifiers until the 28th of August, a place in the group stage may guarantee a very important boost in the budget, for most of them would just pay the season.
Today we have 3 games, with Hapoel Beer-Sheva from Israel receiving Dinamo Zagreb. The Croatian side won 5-0 in the home game and they are pretty much qualified.
More interesting should be the match between Sheriff from Moldova and Skendija from FYROM. After a 1-0 defeat last week, Sheriff will hope the home field advantage will help them to go through. Maybe not a dream match for the regular football fans, but for the hardcore ones who prefer a competitive match to some pre-season friendly, this is the game to watch.
Finally we will have the match between Spartak Trnava from Slovakia against Legia Warsaw from Poland. Spartak caused a big upset last week, when they won 2-0 in Poland and are now in a great position to advance. Legia does have quality to do the same and we will definitely keep an eye at the score and watch this one if Legia scores first.