As the UEFA Champions League enters its third qualifying stage, we move a step closer to seeing which 32 teams will play for a chance to be crowned Europe’s best.
This year, some heavyweights enter the third round of qualifying after successful campaigns a year ago. Ajax Amsterdam, a semifinalist last year that was moments away from progressing to the final, enters the tournament at this stage along with Portuguese giant Porto and perennial Greek contender Olympiacos.
There are also teams like Red Star Belgrade, the 1991 champions, and Celtic, the 1967 champions, that are closing in on qualifying for one of the final spots, yet face difficult tests in the upcoming stage.
Here are some key teams to keep an eye on.
Ajax vs PAOK – Leg 1: August 6; Leg 2: August 13
The Dutch champions had their hearts broken last season when eventual UCL runner-up Tottenham stole an aggregate victory in the second leg of the semifinals. With the Dutch Eredivisie beginning this weekend, Ajax players are already in competitive form despite dropping points in their league opener.
Ajax is deep up front, with primary striker Kasper Dolberg along with wingers Dusan Tadic and Hakim Ziyech. Their attacking form is how they earned a spot in the semifinals, but their defense shouldn’t be overlooked either. Headlined by Joel Veltman, the Ajax defense is skilled but replacing Juventus-bound Matthijs de Ligt has already proven difficult.
Their opponents, PAOK, won the Greek Super League by five points over Olympiacos. With tons of talent flanking the midfield, they are a tough team to break down. Captain and defender Vierinha is experienced and was a major factor in the club’s title run last season.
Porto vs Krasnodar – Leg 1: August 7; Leg 2: August 13
Porto couldn’t dispatch Benfica last season in the Primeira Liga title race so find themselves having to qualify for a Champions League spot. The Portuguese runner-up has some serious speed up front and a midfield made up of domestic talent.
On the other side, Krasnodar plays a physical style game that doesn’t match up well to Porto’s finesse. But Krasnodar has brought in some skill this season, foremost Remy Cabella from Saint Etienne. His quality in possession could help Krasnodar control the game in a more organized fashion.
The matchup is intriguing, especially given the drastic difference between the styles of Portuguese and Russian football. This should be a win for Portugal, but both sides are guaranteed a spot in European football with the loser heading into the Europa League group stage.
Istanbul Basaksehir vs Olympiacos – Leg 1: August 7; Leg 2: August 13
With a surprise second-place finish in the Turkish Super Lig, Istanbul Basaksehir could possibly be the biggest dark-horse in this year’s competition. To do so, they’ll have to get past Olympiacos, a club with years of UCL experience.
Basaksehir has loaded up on talent with speedy midfielder Eljero Elia and striker Demba Ba. There’s experience at the back-end as well with former Man City defender Gael Clichy along with options like Aurelien Chedjou, Junior Caicara, and Alexandru Epureanu.
Olympiacos has shown its creative ability in possession thanks to French midfielder Mathieu Valbuena and Greek international Kostas Fortounis. It sets up one of the most exciting fixtures in the round between a pair of teams each with the ability to potentially make the knockout round should they qualify for the group stage.