Clubs prepare for Champions League chance

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It's almost here. The rolling juggernaut that is the Champions League will be with us very soon, there is just one more round to sort out.

Whatever it's detractors say, there is nothing quite like a tense Champions League evening in the middle of the week, no amount of Premier League or FA Cup clashes can match a crucial tie against exotic opposition from the continent.

We all want the Chelsea v Barcelona semi-final knockout stage type of drama, but that is the main course and we need some hors d'oeuvres to warm up our appetites.

The play-off round for the Champions League is the final stage of qualification and would usually feature one big Premier League side, but Chelsea's unlikely win last season after finishing fifth means they took the space of fourth placed team Tottenham Hotspur.

Qualifying as winners also meant they were spared the trouble of a play-off and went straight into the group stages, to the relief of some of the teams bidding to qualify.

This does not mean there is no interest in the fixtures that were drawn on Friday afternoon in Nyon, Switzerland.

The draw for Scottish champions Celtic has thrown up something of an emotional dilemma for club legend Henrik Larsson, as the Bhoys were drawn with his boyhood club Helsingborgs IF.

Scottish football has had a crisis in the last few years and the quality of the SPL has deteriorated alarmingly from the period where players such as Larsson and Mark Viduka were plying their trade their, so the prospect of a place in the group stages for the first time since 2008 should be a strong motivating factor.

Play-off ties are played over two legs and the draw contains two sides – the Champions route and the league route.

Celtic and Helsingborgs won their respective leagues, but their competitions have lower UEFA coefficients and so the non-champions from the more prestigious leagues are avoided.

With the greatest respect to the champions, the more prestigious ties are in the other half of the draw and have thrown up one or two fixtures that would look at home in the tournament proper.

Portuguese side SC Braga will play their first leg at home against Udinese of Serie A – the Italians were knocked out by Arsenal at the same stage last year, and will be hoping they can return to the group stages for the first time since the 2005-06 season.

Borussia Monchengladbach have been given a tough tie against serial qualifiers Dynamo Kyiv of Ukraine. Swiss manager Lucien Favre has turned them into an exciting young side that are dangerous with their lightning-quick counter-attacks, but Dynamo are an experienced side in Europe.

It may not have the glamour of the latter stages, but the qualification play-offs are where you see real desperation in the faces of those competing; players that don't experience the bling and pomp of Europe's bigger leagues and know this could be their only chance to share a stage with some of the best players on the planet.

Here are the nuts and bolts of European football's favourite mid-week pastime, here are the foundations being laid for the big show.

Check out the full draw here.

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Tottenham Hotspur
Henrik Larsson
UEFA Champions League
Mark Viduka

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