The missing pieces of next seasons UEFA Champions League puzzle are just weeks away from discovery following the conclusion of the second qualifying round.
Last season’s Group Stage participants Celtic, Ludogorets Razgrad and Legia Warsaw all recorded victories, the latter of which registered the most dominant aggregate win of the second qualifying round: a 9-0 demolition of Finnish champions IFK Mariehamn.
Here is the list of teams who face-off in the Champions Route (all league champions of their respective countries) of the third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League:
Czech champions Slavia Prague prepare for their domestic season opener on the weekend following a crucial first-leg against Belarusian champions BATE Borisov. The Belarusians shook off Armenian champions Alashkert 4-2 on aggregate in the second qualifying round, while this is Slavia Prague’s first Champions League outing of the season.
Kazakhstan champions Astana laboured to a narrow 2-1 aggregate win over Latvian champions Spartaks Jurmala in the second qualifying round, and will be alert of the damage caused by their opponents come July 26. Conversely, Legia Warsaw can ill-afford to treat their opponents lightly; Astana are 20 games into their domestic competition, sitting five points clear at the top of the table, while Legia went down 3-1 to Gornik Zabrze in their recent Ekstraklasa opener.
Slovenian champions Maribor edged out Bosnian champions Zrinjski Mostar 3-2 on aggregate in the second qualifying round, while Icelandic champions FH knocked off semi-professional outfit (and Faroe Island champions) Vikingur Gota 3-1. The Icelandic side come into the tie off the back of a patchy run of league form (sitting 4th with four wins, five draws and two losses), while Maribor are just one game into their domestic campaign.
FK Vardar are in search of their first European group stage appearance in 70 years of existence when they come up against Copenhagen. The Danes are a side all-too familiar with European proceedings, having played in the Champions League Round of 16 in 2010/11, and participated in either the group stage of the Champions League or Europa League in every season to follow.
Scottish treble-winners Celtic made quick work of Northern Ireland champions Linfield in the second qualifying round, but will have more of a task on their hands against Norwegian champions Rosenborg in the third qualifying round. Rosenborg are 17 games into their domestic season, sitting five points clear at the top of the table, while Celtic are still two weeks away from their season opener against Hearts.
Hapoel Be’er Sheva played out an entertaining 5-3 aggregate victory over Hungarian champions Honved last round, the same aggregate score line that Ludogorets Razgrad emerged victorious from after a tie with Lithuanian champions FK Zalgiris. The Israeli outfit have never reached the Champions League group stage, unlike their Bulgarian opponents, who participated in the 2014/15 season and even managed a 2-2 draw with Liverpool.
Romanian champions Viitorul Constanta make their first appearance of the Champions League season in the third qualifying round against APOEL, while their Cypriot opponents had to see off Luxembourg champions F91 Dudelange in the second qualifying round. The Romanians snapped a four-game losing streak in friendlies and cup games by winning their first league outing just this past week, while APOEL are still a month away from starting domestic competition.
Both Red Bull Salzburg and Rijeka pulled off devastating victories over lesser-known opposition last round; the Austrians dismissed Maltese champions Hibernians 6-0 on aggregate, while the Croatians dismantled Welsh champions The News Saints 7-1 on aggregate, respectively, to progress to the third round. Salzburg are trying to reach the group stage for the first time in over 20 years, while this is the furthest that Rijeka have ever made in the Champions League.
Azerbaijan champions Qarabag progressed from the second qualifying round with ease after a 6-0 hammering of Georgian champions Samtredia. They’ll be looking to go one better than last season, when they lost to Viktoria Plzen by away goals after a 1-1 aggregate scoreline. Standing in their way is Moldovan outfit Sheriff Tiraspol, a side who are regular battlers at this phase of the competition, but have never secured progression to the group stage.
Perhaps the most intriguing battle of the third qualifying round takes place between the champions of Serbia and Greece. Both clubs have a rich history in the competition, with Partizan reaching the Quarter-Finals in 1956 and 1964, and were runners-up to Real Madrid in 1966. Olympiakos reached the Quarter-Final in 1999 and, though they haven’t been a threatening presence in the competition proper, have participated in six of the last eight group stages.