There are few things in football that match the glamour of the UEFA Champions League.
Think of the buzz you get on those tense mid-week evenings in places like San Siro, Old Trafford, Camp Nou, Santiago Bernabeu….Fir Park.
Ok, so Motherwell in the lowlands of Scotland isn’t exactly the kind of glitz you expect from Europe’s premier competition, but that is exactly where the foundations for the competition are laid.
Qualifying for the 2012/13 edition has been under way for some time, but last night saw the beginning of the third and penultimate round before the group stages begin.
Play-off rounds will be all that stands between the winners of these ties, but that is no mean feat, because it is there that the third and fourth placed finishers from Europe’s more prominent leagues join the fray.
However, it does not mean there are no big names in the pot now; serial qualifiers from Greece, Panathinaikos, were in Scotland and defeating Motherwell 2-0 at the aforementioned Fir Park.
While it may have been disappointing for the Scottish Premier League side, they were up a against a far superior side and were only in the competition because of the almighty disaster at Glasgow Rangers, who are set to ply their trade in the Scottish third division next season.
Scottish interest continues tonight as SPL champions Celtic take on HJK Helsinki in the first leg of their tie at Celtic Park, but more a recognisable clash yesterday set up an intriguing second leg.
Dynamo Kyiv defeated Feyenoord 2-1 in Ukraine in a tense game that should set up a cracking second leg in Rotterdam next week.
However, this is the round where some of Europe’s real minnows get a chance to book a tie against some of the biggest names in the game.
Countries like Azerbaijan, Moldova and Luxembourg all have representatives in the third round, where a win could earn them a money-making tie against clubs the pedigree of Udinese of Serie A, former Ligue 1 champions Lille, exciting Bundesliga side Borussia Monchengladbach or former big spenders, now having some financial trouble, La Liga side Malaga.
Though there is still a way to go, the thought that they are just two ties away from the money, glamour and possible glory of facing the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and reigning champions Chelsea – who were spared qualification due to their victory over Bayern Munich on penalties.
It may not be time for popcorn yet, but most of the teams that preparing to compete have a glimpse of glory and riches that would otherwise even be difficult for them to dream of.
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