Tight affairs as Champions League enters pressurized playoff round

European clubs search to put one foot in the Champions League group stage after their playoff first legs on Wednesday.  

Only one club can win the UEFA Champions League. But it can nevertheless be meaningful to the many other teams that have no hope of lifting the trophy. As the economics of soccer on the continent perpetually pull the money and talent to a select few sides, just participating in the game’s elite club event can carry great weight. That’s what makes the playoff round, which grants the last 10 teams access to the group stage of the main tournament and continues on the FOX family of networks come Wednesday, so important.  

The imperatives are monetary to be sure. Short of selling a homegrown player for many millions, there is no more legitimate get-rich-quick scheme in soccer than a Cinderella run in the Champions League. But the pursuit of a place in this grueling competition is, at base, more about relevancy than solvency. Without getting too metaphysical about the meaning of sport, glory is most readily at hand in Europe. Especially for teams in leagues that have seen their popularity and credibility slip in recent years.

This is acutely true for Celtic, those proud but now unchallenged Scottish giants. For them, qualification for Europe is urgent when they travel to Maribor in Slovenia in the first leg (live, FOX Sports 2, now). Ever since arch-rivals — and only real and consistent competitors — Rangers ran themselves into the ground and into Scottish soccer’s fourth tier, Celtic have been imperious at home. They won the Scottish Premier league by 27 points last year, losing just once — second-placed Motherwell lost 12 times, by comparison. They won it by 16 points the year before. And in truth, during the 2011-12, the last year Rangers were in it before imploding, Celtic won the Scottish Premier League by 20 points.

Without Rangers, the decay of Scottish soccer has accelerated — the on-field product hasn’t been terribly attractive in quite some time — and the outcome just seems about pre-determined, especially with major clubs Hearts and Hibernian now out of the Scottish Premier League as well. That means for Celtic, the real challenge lay on the continent. Two seasons ago, they were the tournament’s darlings. Barcelona were one of the all-time great teams then and Celtic went ahead against them at the impregnable Camp Nou, before losing out in the end. Then, at home, they beat them, in what stands as one of the game’s modern-day miracles.

After a solid preseason and a transfer window that saw Celtic retain the bulk of their talent — but for goalkeeper Fraser Forster, forward Tony Watt and striker Giorgios Samaras — things looked good for Celtic. But they very nearly didn’t even make it this far in qualifying. Because of Scotland’s plummeting UEFA coefficient, they had to start in the second qualifying round, even though they are champions. They swept KR Reykjavik aside 5-0. They came up against Legia Warsaw next. And they were hammered 6-1 on aggregate. Lady luck bailed them out from this would-be disaster, however.

UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL

As it turned out, Legia had fielded an ineligible player in the return leg, which they had won 2-0 after winning 4-1 at home. Bartosz Bereszynski came on late in the game, as Legia thought he had served his three-game suspension. But since he had not been registered from the last two games, he didn’t actually complete his suspension, UEFA ruled. Legia forfeited the game — and lost an appeal — and Celtic won the game 3-0. Just enough to take the entire tie 4-4 on aggregate, by the immense grace of a technicality. They are nevertheless favorites to advance past Maribor, though.

In Wednesday’s other games, AaB takes on APOEL Nicosia, while Slovan Bratislava face BATE Borisov. These games are tough to call. All of these clubs have much experience in Europe but are hard to handicap as they are from disparate leagues.

One of the more enticing matchups is between Standard Liege, the source of young Belgian talent conquering the world, and moneyed Zenit St. Petersburg, who hope to finally see a return on all of that investment. It’s with players like Belgium star Axel Witsel, brought up at Standard, incidentally, and acquired for $53 million two summers ago, that Zenit’s "anti-aircraft Gunners" hope to finally make a dent in Europe.

The other game that will catch the eye is Lille-FC Porto. The French club is lauded for bringing up some of the brightest European prospects in recent years and boasts a deep team that belongs at the highest European level, headlined by strikers Salomon Kalou and Divock Origi and midfielders Marvin Martin and Rio Mavuba. Portuguese powerhouse Porto, meanwhile, lost defender Eliaquim Mangala and midfielder Fernando to Manchester City and winger Juan Iturbe to AS Roma but, as ever, simply reloaded by bringing on defender Bruno Martins Indi, midfielder Casemiro and Spanish forwards Christian Tello and Adrian Lopez.

These, then, should make for tight games. And to the teams in them, they will perhaps matter as much as any in the main tournament itself.