Teams that have to play in the final qualifying round of the Champions League reach this stage by two routes. They can make the round by finishing in the qualifying places in their league or by winning one of the minor leagues in Europe. Liverpool and Celtic have qualified for this stage by the former and latter methods respectively and play the first leg of their ties this week.
English clubs have an impeccable record in the final qualifying stage of the Champions League. Eight teams have played the tie and eight have qualified for the group stages. Teams that got in through their league position have a better record than teams that have won a minor league. Scotland is seen as one of the minnows of European football and the champions do not receive direct entry into the groups.
There are ten first leg ties of Champions League qualifying this week and the winners of these ties will join the 22 clubs in the hat for eight groups of four teams. England’s representatives are Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham based on league position and Manchester United who qualified by winning the Europa League. No club has won the Champions League after qualifying in this way.
The group ties are played on a home and away basis with the top two teams qualifying for the last 16 at which point the competition has a knockout format. All roads lead to the NSK Olimpiyskyi stadium in Kviv on the last Saturday in May. Chelsea are the last English club to win the Champions League, beating Bayern Munich on penalties at that club’s stadium in the 2011/12 season.
Liverpool are the most successful English team in the history of the European Cup and Champions League. They won the first version four times between 1977 and 1984 and famously won the Champions League in 2005 in Istanbul. Celtic were the first British club to win the European Cup. The team that beat Inter Milan in 1967 consisted of 11 players who were born within 50 miles of Celtic’s ground.
There is often a debate about the quality of both versions and which is harder to win. The European Cup truly was a competition for champions because only the winners of 32 leagues around Europe qualified. There were only four knockout rounds leading up to the final which meant the winners played nine matches and the early rounds were against weak opposition. Finalists in the current Champions League final have 12 fixtures leading up to the final tie.
Playing in the group stages of the Champions League is the minimum requirement for any manager at one of the elite clubs. Liverpool cannot attract players based on history and reputation but by offering good money. The business model is based on the revenue for at least six matches in the Champions League and any extra fixtures are a bonus. It would be a severe blow if Liverpool were eliminated by Hoffenheim.
The German team finished fourth in the Bundesliga to qualify but they are playing their first match in European football at home against Liverpool tonight. A draw would be a good result for the visitors and not conceding would be the icing on the cake. Defensively Liverpool were poor against Watford in the Premier League in their first match so a scoring draw is the most likely option tonight.
Celtic play the first leg of their tie at home against Astana tomorrow night. They are big favourites to win the match and on all known form the Scottish champions can progress. However, the Premier League in Scotland is so uncompetitive that Celtic often struggle against the better sides in the Champions League. It would be unthinkable to lose to the champions of Kazakhstan in this qualifying tie.
It’s almost impossible for a team that comes through qualifying to go all the way and win the Champions League. Liverpool and Celtic can begin that journey with positive results in their first leg matches this week but neither club will win the Champions League this season.