With our own league position decided and the other European Leagues close to being finished I thought I’d take both Rossi’s article as a starting point and have another look at just who we could face in next seasons Champions League qualifiers. As you’ll see, reaching the group stage in 2010/11 could be every bit as difficult as it was in 2009/10.
First a quick refresher on the way that qualifying works in the Platini era of European football. As with this season, Scotland’s runners-up will enter the Champions League at the Third Qualifying Round stage. Both this round of qualifying and the final Playoff round which follows it are now split into two distinct qualifying streams – one for National Champions, the other for ‘Best Placed Teams’ from the top nations, i.e. those who finish 2nd, 3rd or 4th in their league. This means that, as runners up in the SPL, we can ONLY be drawn against other teams who also failed to win their own national league. Gone for now are the heady days of being drawn against the Champions of Lithuania or Hungary. If we want to play with the big boys next year we have to do it the hard way.
As Rossi informed us, the Third Qualifying round in the non-champions stream will see 10 teams enter the competition – the 3rd place team from the Russian league, and the 2nd place teams from Ukraine, Holland, Romania, Portugal, Turkey, Greece, Scotland, Belgium & Switzerland. The winners of the five ties between these teams proceed to the Playoff round where they are joined by the 3rd place teams from Germany and France, and the 4th place teams from England, Spain and Italy. These teams compete for the final five places in the group stage.
Now comes the bad news. Both rounds are seeded by coefficient. But while Celtic were seeded in the 2009-10 3rd qualifying round, it is now unlikely that we will be again next season. The reason for this is that four of the nations listed above – Russia, Netherlands, Portugal and Ukraine – will definitely be represented by a club with a higher coefficient than our own. That leaves only the fifth and last seeded spot open to us. In effect, we’re relying on the runners-up of the other five leagues having a worse coefficient than our own if we want to be seeded. Possible, but unlikely.
So who will join us in the 3rd qualifying round? Two potential opponents are already known; Zenit St Petersburg, who finished 3rd in the 2009 Russian league, and Ajax, who finished 2nd behind Steve McClaren’s Twente in The Netherlands. Both will definitely be seeded.
In Portugal it looks likely that Sporting Braga will finish in 2nd place and join us in the 3rd qualifying round. With only one game remaining they trail Benfica by 3pts. However, should Benfica lose their final fixture and Braga win, it would be Braga who would be Champions by way of their superior head to head record over Benfica – who would then become a possible opponent for Celtic.
In the Ukraine our old friends Shakhtar Donetsk are the front runners of a two horse race – 3pts clear of Dynamo Kiev with two games to play. However, the two meet on Wednesday in the penultimate fixture.
As already mentioned, the outcome of the Portuguese or Ukrainian league won’t affect our chances of getting the final seeded spot (all the teams mentioned have a higher coefficient than us). But they could affect our chances of reaching the final playoff round. I can’t imagine there are many Celtic fans who would rather play Benfica than Braga, or Shaktar ahead of Kiev.
To grab the last seeded spot in the 3rd round, we need the right team to finish in 2nd place in the other five leagues. In all five of them. Here’s how things currently stand.
The good news from Belgium is that their representative will definitely have a lower coefficient than Celtics. Brugge and Gent are the two clubs battling it out for the runners-up spot – Brugge are 1pt ahead with two games to play. But we can only face either of these teams if we are seeded.
With four games to play in Romania the top five are all within 6pts. FC Cluj leads the way on 59pts, ahead of Rangers conquering Unirea Urziceni (56), Timisoara & Vaslui (55) and Steaua Bucharest (53). The good news here is that of all five teams, only Steaua has a higher coefficient than our own – meaning that as long as they don’t finish in 2nd place Celtic will be seeded ahead of the Romanian representative.
The Turkish league is another two horse race. Fenerbahce lead Bursaspor (who play in Green & White) by 1pt with two games to play. Of the two, Fenerbahce would be seeded ahead of Celtic while Bursaspor would be seeded behind us. Therefore, we need Fenerbahce to win the league and Bursaspor to finish 2nd.[To slightly complicate things, one of Bursaspor’s two remaining games is against Anakaraspor, who were thrown out of the league earlier in the season. This means Bursaspor are automatically awarded a 3-0 win for one of their two remaining fixtures – the reason why Galatasaray in 3rd place can’t catch them]
The Greek league uses a playoff system to decide who their 2nd Champions League representative will be. The teams finishing 2nd-5th in the regular league play each other home and away, with the winner joining Celtic in the 3rd Qualifying round. After two of six rounds PAOK and Olympiakos lead the way on 7pts*, with Aris (3) and AEK (2) trailing. Of the four teams, only Olympiakos have a higher coefficient than Celtic’s. Therefore, in Greece it’s anyone but Olympiakos.
*the teams start the playoff with points weighted on their final league total.
Three games remain in the Swiss league, which is a two horse race between current leaders Young Boys (74pts) and Basel (71). Basel would be seeded ahead of us, Young Boys would not. Therefore, we need Basel to win the league. The good news is that, despite the 3pt gap, the two teams meet on the final day of the season in what will likely be a winner takes all match. The bad news is that Young Boys have won two of the three league meetings already this season.
So there we have it. Clear as mud, eh?
Currently the leagues are going our way in four of these five countries – only in Switzerland is it going against us. But, as already stated, that’s enough to ensure that Celtic won’t be seeded. As things stand just now the lineup for the 3rd Qualifying Round would be
Seeded – Zenit, Ajax, Basel, Dynamo Kiev and Braga.
Unseeded – Celtic, Unirea, PAOK, Gent and Bursaspor.
Not the worst looking draw, but I’d still rather be among the seeds than not. It only takes a few results to go against us before we’re faced with a seeded lineup of Zenit, Ajax, Shaktar, Benfica and Olympiakos.
Why does all this matter? Well, being seeded obviously gives us a better chance of progressing to the final playoff round and that is important for a couple of reasons. Leaving aside the obvious – that we’re then only 180 minutes away from playing in the Champions’ League Group Stage and skimming off some of the TV money that Lloyds FC have earmarked as their own – progression to the playoff round guarantees that Celtic would definitely play in the group stages of either the Champions League or the Europa League. Failure to progress, however, would mean that we enter the Europa League in the final playoff round, one round before the Group Stage of that competition.
And that’s the choice. Play what will likely be a high profile tie at a packed Celtic Park against a big name with a Champions League spot on the line; or an extra Europa League qualification tie against who knows who, at a half full Celtic Park.
I know which I’d rather be watching.[I’ve deliberately not gone in to detail about the final playoff round. As things stand, the winners of the five 3rd qualifying round ties would be joined by Tottenham, Sampdoria, Mallorca, Werder Bremen and Lille. That will likely change as the other leagues finish, with Man City, Sevilla, Palermo, Leverkusen and Lyon (among others) still in contention. Some of these teams have a lower coefficient than teams entering the 3rd qualifying round, so seeding for the playoff round is determined by who progresses and who doesn’t.]