In Focus: Six things to look out for in the Champions League qualifiers
The season may have only just started in England, Germany and Spain but it is already crunch time for 12 clubs across Europe.
While most sides are easing their way back into domestic action, teams competing in the Champions League play-off round are fighting for a coveted place in the tournament’s group stage.
With some mouth-watering first-leg ties in store, here are the key things to look out for in this week’s qualifying matches.
The talent factory
From Erling Haaland and Takumi Minamino to Naby Keita and Dayot Upamecano, Red Bull Salzburg have produced an exceptional number of talented stars over the past few seasons.
That conveyor belt is showing no signs of slowing down, with both Patson Daka and Enock Mwepu joining Leicester and Brighton respectively this summer.
Now all eyes are on the next hot prospects set to emerge at the Red Bull Arena.
The early signs this season suggest Karim Adeyemi, 19, is the one to watch — he has already scored five times in just four league matches and will be looking to add to that tally against Brondby tomorrow night.
Money matters at Monaco
Monaco is famously home to the super rich — but there is not too much money knocking about in Ligue 1 this season.
The collapse of the French top tier’s TV deal with Mediapro last year has left the division’s clubs short of cash, so reaching the Champions League’s lucrative group stage would be a welcome boost for title-chasing Monaco.
But Niko Kovac’s men will have to get past experienced continental campaigners Shakhtar Donetsk first.
They have reached the group stage in 13 of the previous 15 seasons but finished 11 points behind title-winners Dynamo Kyiv in the Ukrainian Premier League last term.
A new Sheriff in town?
Sheriff Tiraspol are bidding to become the first Moldovan team to qualify for the Champions League group stage, having fallen at the final hurdle on two previous occasions in 2009 and 2010.
The domestic champions are a dominant force on home soil and have won the last six league titles — bagging 99 points and 109 goals in 2020-21.
Europe is the final frontier for the Wasps but can they sting Dinamo Zagreb and finally reach the promised land?
Colak on the goal trail
Sweden’s Allsvenskan is already in full swing and Malmo are just three points off table-toppers Djurgarden at the season’s halfway point.
They have taken that fine domestic form into the Champions League, having shocked Steven Gerrard’s Rangers with a 4-2 aggregate victory in the previous round.
Croatian goal machine Antonio Colak scored a brace in the second leg of that tie and is joint top of the Swedish goalscoring charts with eight for the campaign.
After netting 51 goals in 92 games for Rijeka earlier in his career, the 27-year-old is looking remarkably potent once again — opponents Ludogorets will have to pay him close attention if they are to stand a chance of winning the tie.
Wagner aiming to hit the high notes
It has been a difficult few seasons for German coach David Wagner.
The former Borussia Dortmund II boss began his senior managerial career in eye-catching fashion, taking Huddersfield to the Premier League in 2016-17.
But after avoiding relegation against the odds the following season, the Terriers eventually dropped out of the top flight — and things did not go much better at next club Schalke.
Die Konigsblauen went 18 league matches without a win on his watch, ultimately suffering relegation from the Bundesliga after the 49-year-old’s departure.
Now back in the dugout with Swiss side Young Boys, Wagner will be looking to start rebuilding his reputation by beating Ferencvaros to reach the group stage.
The pick of Wednesday’s action comes from the Estadio da Luz, where Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven face Portuguese big boys Benfica.
With domestic rivals Ajax and Porto flying the flag for their respective nations in recent years, both teams will be desperate to make a splash in the Champions League.
Benfica will be full of confidence, having recruited Ukrainian frontman Roman Yaremchuk and Inter Milan midfielder Joao Mario.
But PSV are reeling from losing Euro 2020 stars Donyell Malen and Denzel Dumfries to Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan respectively.
This encounter will be a barometer for how Roger Schmidt’s men will cope without their dynamic Dutch duo.