There's just one stage of matches left before the Champions League group stage, and it's time to see who's going to face who to earn the last few places left in Europe's elite competition. The draw for the playoff stage is here, and soon, the field will be set.
The draw includes twenty teams and is divided into two groups -- teams that qualified by winning their respective leagues, and teams that qualified by where they finished in their respective leagues. That way guarantees more actual, you know, league champions make the Champions League proper, as the so called "league route" group tends to include much bigger clubs that would trounce the "champions route" clubs from smaller countries.
Within each group, the teams are ranked by their "UEFA coefficient," a complicated grading system that awards points based on how each team performed in European competitions over the last several years, including a bonus based on their country's overall performance in Europe. The top five clubs in each "group" are considered seeded and cannot be drawn against one another, leading to some potentially lopsided results.
Still, we've got a pool of teams both deep and interesting this year, so once the matches get underway, we should be in for some high-class footballing entertainment. The first matches of the two-legged ties will be on August 18 and 19, with the return legs on August 25 and 26, and the ten winners advance directly to the Champions League group stage.
Teams to watch
Everyone assumes that Manchester United will advance with ease, coming in as three-time Champions League winners who are working their way back from a dreadful season two years ago that saw them miss out on Europe entirely. Things are definitely looking like they're on the upswing for the English giants, but any of AS Monaco, Lazio, or CSKA Moscow could give them one hell of a fight in the unseeded portion of the league route draw.
The same note of caution goes for Bayer Leverkusen and Valencia in the same bracket, but perhaps the most interesting seeded club in that group is Sporting Clube de Portugal. Sporting have built and intriguing side over the last few years, and they seem like they could be primed for a breakout. Their performance in this playoff round bears close scrutiny.
In the champions route side, familiar faces Basel and Celtic are joined by a couple of theoretical minnows in APOEL and BATE Borisov who once used to consistently fall at this stage of Champions League qualifying, but in recent years have been making slow and steady improvements to their competitive level. There's no one in the unseeded teams on that side who look certain to beat the two smaller clubs, and we could see both the Cypran and Belarusian champions in the group stage. Wouldn't that be something?
Perhaps the biggest team to watch, though, is Maccabi Tel-Aviv. They're arguably the biggest team in Israel and one of just three teams from the nation to ever make the Champions League group stage. Many feel that this is the best side the club has ever put together, so it's time for Maccabi Tel-Aviv to put up or shut up on the grandest stage in football -- but first, they have to win their playoff tie.
Full draw list
FC Basel (Switzerland)*
BATE Borisov (Belarus)*
Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia)*
Maccabi Tel-Aviv (Israel)
FK Partizan (Serbia)
Malmo FF (Sweden)
KR Skënderbeu (Albania)
Manchester United (England)*
Bayer Leverkusen (Germany) *
Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine)*
Sporting Clube de Portugal (Portugal)*
CSKA Moscow (Russia)
Club Brugge (Belgium)
AS Monaco (France)
Rapid Vienna (Austria)
* - Denotes seeded team
Draw Date/Time: Friday, 6 a.m. ET, 12 p.m. local
Location: Nyon, Switzerland
TV: Fox Sports 1 (U.S.)
Online: To watch online, you'll be looking for UEFA.com and their DrawCentre, which should be available more or less worldwide.