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London a long way off for Champs League hopefuls
Published : 31 Jul 2012 06:46:54
The London Olympics have barely begun, but qualifying for next May's Champions League final at London's Wembley Stadium is already underway, and some major names enter the fray this midweek.
Former European champions Celtic and Feyenoord are in action in the third qualifying round, along with distinguished names such as Dynamo Kyiv, Panathinaikos and Anderlecht.
There are effectively two separate qualifying stages for the Champions League these days, with domestic champions kept together and clubs who failed to win their national titles facing off against each other.
For the non-champions, the possibility of a play-off round tie against Malaga, Borussia Moenchengladbach, Udinese, Lille, Spartak Moscow or Braga awaits.
As Scottish title-holders, Celtic's path should be smoother as they look to reach the group stages for the first time since 2008.
Neil Lennon's side will come up against HJK Helsinki of Finland, who hammered KR Reykjavik of Iceland 9-1 in the second qualifying round.
Scottish football needs a lift after what has been a tumultuous summer overshadowed by the dramatic fall from grace of Celtic's Old Firm rivals Rangers.
However, Lennon will be taking nothing for granted against HJK, who are already more than halfway through their domestic season.
"Having watched Helsinki last week I know it's going to be a really hard game," he told Scottish media after watching his side draw 1-1 in a friendly with Inter Milan on Saturday.
"They have a bit of pace in their team, particularly in wide areas. They are fit players who all know their way around the pitch.
"They will be difficult to beat and hard to break down. The onus will be on us to score but we will have to be patient.
"We're in good condition now and the football is starting to look better. I think we're ready."
With Rangers banished from European competition, Scotland's other Champions League spot has been taken by Motherwell, who will start as rank outsiders against Greek giants Panathinaikos.
Runners-up in the European Cup in 1971, Pana are not the force they once were, with the collapse of the Greek economy having a major impact on football too.
They are also barely into their pre-season, but they remain favourites to win the tie, and Motherwell will need a positive result at their Fir Park home on Tuesday if they are to stand any chance of progressing.
"We won't be naive, but we will have a go," says Motherwell manager Stuart McCall.
Just a month after hosting the Euro 2012 final, Ukraine's capital hosts a battle between two of the continent's most famous club sides as Dynamo Kyiv face Feyenoord.
Feyenoord have been revived under the management of Ronald Koeman, who left his mark on the European Cup by scoring Barcelona's winner in the 1992 final against Sampdoria at Wembley.
"It's a tough draw. Dynamo Kyiv were not my preference," said Koeman after the draw was made.
"They have a couple of new players, including some players who were also at the Euros for Ukraine.
"They are a team with experience in Europe and a team that is always competing for a place in the Champions League."
Basel, who eliminated Manchester United in the group stage last season, have been drawn against Norwegian side Molde, now coached by United's 1999 Champions League final hero Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Belgian champions Anderlecht are up against Ekranas of Lithuania, Turkey's Fenerbahce take on Vaslui of Romania, and FC Copenhagen, who reached the last 16 two seasons ago, will face one-time finalists Club Brugge.