Even though the vibrations from Liverpool’s stunning Champions League Final triumph on June 1st are still being felt from Madrid to Merseyside, UEFA’s preparations for the 2019/20 iteration of the competition have already begun.
The Preliminary round stages of next season’s Champions League get under way as early as this week, with the tournament’s 1st Qualification Round 1st leg ties scheduled to take place just a fortnight later on July 9th and 10th.
Last season’s UCL surprise package, Ajax, started their lengthy run to the Champions League Semi Finals in a 2-0 2nd Qualification Round first leg win over Austrian outfit Sturm Graz on July 25th 2018 – and this year, a whole host of the continent’s lesser lights will be dreaming of emulating de Godenzonen’s heroics in 2019/20.
Let’s take a look at some of the most interesting matches to look out for the in the Champions League’s 1st Qualification Round this summer.
Keep up to date with the latest Champions League betting tips, match previews and predictions here.
FK Sūduva vs Red Star Belgrade
Lithuanian side FK Sūduva retained their Lyga A title in 2018, doubling the number of domestic championships won by the Sudovians in their 98-year history in the process.
The draw for the Champions League 1st Qualification Round was unkind on the Lithuanians however, and Sūduva must negotiate an incredibly difficult looking double-header against Serbian champions Red Star Belgrade next month.
Red Star played in the Group Stage of last season’s competition, and though they eventually made an early exit, they did take the scalp of eventual winners Liverpool in Belgrade, shocking the continent by battering their way to a convincing 2-0 win.
Remarkably, FK Sūduva and Red Star were also drawn together in last season’s Champions League qualification rounds. The teams contested two matches at the 2nd round stage, and Red Star won 5-0 on aggregate.
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FC Astana vs CFR Cluj
Fresh from winning their 5th Kazakhstan Premier League title on the spin, FC Astana will lock horns with Romanian champions CFR Cluj next month for a place in the 2nd Champions League Qualification Round.
Astana are used to disappointment on Europe’s biggest stage, and the Blue and Yellows failed to make it through the tournament’s pre-qualification stage on each of their last 3 attempts.
Astana were involved in the UCL Group Stage just once before in 2015/16, though the Kazakhstani side failed to win a single game and finished bottom of the section that they shared with Benfica, Atletico Madrid and Galatasaray.
CFR Cluj’s last Champions League qualification success came all the way back in 2012/13 season, and even though they finished 3rd in their Group that year, they gave a terrific account of themselves, taking 10 points in total and famously winning 1-0 at Old Trafford against Manchester United on Match Day 6.
Ferencváros vs Ludogorets Razgrad
Hungarian champions Ferencváros clinched their 30th Hungarian title in 2018/19, but even though the club from Budapest are familiar with competing outside the borders of their homeland, they are aiming to make it the Champions League Group Stage for only the second time in their history this summer.
Having made it to the Group Stage of the competition twice inside the last 5 seasons, their opponents, Bulgarian champions Ludogorets, certainly have the edge over Ferencváros in terms of recent top-level experience, though the Hungarians have the talent to make life tough for their more battle-hardened foe.
Managed by former Tottenham and Dynamo Kiev star Sergei Rebrov, Ferencváros coasted to the OTP Bank Liga title in 2018/19, securing top spot by a massive 13-points ahead of their nearest rivals MOL Vidi.
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FK Sarajevo vs Celtic
Having fallen at the final hurdle in last year’s Champions League qualifiers against AEK Athens, Scottish champions Celtic will be desperate to exorcise some continental demons this summer.
Neil Lennon’s men will be huge favourites to come through their two-legged tie against Bosnia & Herzegovina outfit Sarajevo, though Celtic are achingly familiar with the horrible feeling that comes with losing a Champions League qualifier to one of Europe’s minnows.
Celtic were knocked out by Slovenian side Maribor and Swedish club Malmo in the early stages of the Champions league in 2014/15 and 2015/16 respectively, and The Bhoys will have to be thoroughly professional to ensure that the same mistakes aren’t repeated this year.
Dundalk vs Riga FC
Premier Division champions Dundalk have been trailblazers for Irish football in recent seasons, and in 2016/17, the Lilywhites came within touching distance of the Champions League Group Stage, coming through 2 rounds of qualification games before they were narrowly beaten by Polish team Legia Warsaw in the playoff round.
Dundalk’s consolation prize was a place in a Europe League Group alongside Zenit, AZ and Maccabi Tel Aviv, where the club became the first Irish representative ever at that stage of the competition.
Dundalk were unable to emulate their success in the two seasons that followed, though his year, there is hope that Vinny Perth’s men can make a similarly positive impact to their efforts in 2016.
In their way this year, are Latvian champions and European greenhorns Riga FC. The club, that was founded as recently as 2014, will be competing on the continent for only the second time in their history having made their European debut in last season’s Europa League qualifiers.
We’ll be covering all the action in the Champions League Qualification Rounds in our match previews section here.