Shakhter Karagandy, a Kazakh mining town team based nearer Mongolia than UEFA headquarters in Switzerland, could add an exotic touch to the Champions League group stage if they can hold out against Celtic tomorrow.
The team from the windswept, coal-mining town of Karagandy on the Kazakh steppe, take a 2-0 cushion to Glasgow for the second leg of their playoff tie, one of 10 being played over today and tommorow to decide who join the 22 teams already qualified for the group stage.
There is a lot at stake financially as each of the 32 teams in the group stage will receive a basic fee of 8.6 million euros (US$11.53 million), according to UEFA, plus 1 million euros for each win and half that amount for each draw. They stand to receive further income from UEFA’s television rights and sponsorship pool.
Arsenal should comfortably make the group stage for the 16th season in a row against a Fenerbahce team caught up in a match-fixing scandal, while FC Basel, Zenit St Petersburg, Real Sociedad and Austria Vienna look set to join them. Seven-time champions AC Milan, the most illustrious team in action this week, also have a slight advantage against 1988 European Cup winners PSV Eindhoven, having drawn 1-1 away in the first leg, but are still not home and dry.
Milan, who spent most of last season playing catch-up after a dismal start, cannot afford to miss out on the group stage and, worryingly, began their Serie A campaign with a 2-1 defeat at promoted Hellas Verona on Saturday.
“We know it is a crossroads for our season, we have to turn the page and focus on this match at the San Siro,” captain Riccardo Montolivo said.
At the other end of the scale from Milan, Shakhter will travel across five time zones to defend their lead at former champions Celtic.
If they are successful, the Pitmen, who were founded in 1958 and never got to compete in the top flight of the old Soviet league, would be the first Kazakh team to reach the group stage since their country joined UEFA from the Asian confederation in 2002.
The huge distances to Kazakhstan plus frigid conditions in November and December would make them a team to avoid in the draw and they have already attracted controversy for slaughtering a sheep before last week’s first leg.
Animal rights group PETA has written to UEFA president Michel Platini asking him to use his influence to ensure that the governing body’s “prestigious competitions are not tainted by such horrifying cruelty.”
Celtic, who reached the last 16 last season, still believe they can turn the tie around tomorrow.
“We will get a head of steam up, the fans will be behind us,” manager Neil Lennon told the BBC. “This team [Celtic] are capable of scoring goals at any time. We created enough chances [in the first leg] to have won the game.”
Arsenal brought a 3-0 lead back from Turkey last week and the task seems beyond a limited Fenerbahce in today’s return.
FC Basel, 4-2 winners at Bulgarian champions Ludogorets Razgrad, Zenit St Petersburg, who beat Portugal’s Pacos de Ferreira 4-1 in Porto, and Real Sociedad, who beat Olympique Lyonnais 2-0, should also finish the job on home soil.
The Bundesliga’s prestige faces an early test as Schalke 04 visit PAOK Salonika after being held 1-1 at home last week.