Twelve teams will scrap it out for a place in the Champions League group stage this week as they face the first legs of their play-off in the hopes of going toe-to-toe with Europe’s elite this season.
English clubs will be keeping an eye on the sides competing for a place in the main draw of the competition – taking place on August 26 – with some dangerous teams still left in the preliminary stages.
European heavyweights Benfica will be one of the favourites to advance but have PSV standing in their way, while Monaco vs Shakhtar promises to be another intriguing match up in the play-offs.
Every team who reaches this stage should be taken seriously – and the dozen outfits will be doing their utmost to reach the promised land and the prize money it offers, with the losers dropping down to the Europa League.
Sportsmail gives you a breakdown of all six matches in the play-off round, the teams to look out for who could reach the group stages and the star names to watch.
Monaco’s main hopes of reaching the Champions League groups rely on Wissam Ben Yedder
August 17, 20:00 BST
Monaco vs Shakhtar Donestk – Stade Louis II
One of the standout clashes out of the six sees the Ukrainian league runners up travel to France to face Niko Kovac’s men, who impressed in Ligue 1 last season by finishing third.
Led by the menacing duo of Wissam Ben Yedder and Kevin Volland, Monaco will pose a huge threat to Shahktar having netted 76 goals in the league last season – 12 more than eventual champions Lille.
Ben Yedder himself nabbed 20, with Volland just behind on 16 – and Kovac has even added a new striking talent in Myron Boadu, who arrives from AZ Alkmaar having scored 15 league goals in Holland last term. The club have also been bolstered by the arrival of highly rated goalkeeper Alexander Nubel from Bayern Munich on loan.
Niko Kovac’s side also boast German forward Kevin Volland as they face a tough task
Monaco will be eager to bounce back from their opening day 1-0 defeat to Lorient last week, which saw Kovac rest a handful of stars such as Ben Yedder, Youssouf Fofana, Ruben Aguilar and Caio Henrique, and they should be in a good condition to feature here.
Shakhtar are not quite the animal they once were, having failed to win the league title last year, but are still a team to underrestimate at your own peril. The club – who have only failed to qualify for the groups once in the last decade – have a reputation for signing talented young Brazilian stars and have maintained that trend by snapping up Benfica midfielder Pedrinho for around £15m.
The 23-year-old featured briefly for the Portuguese outfit last season but had already featured 127 times for the Brazilian team and is now looking to become a key player in Donetsk.
The team were led in the scoring charts last season by Israeli midfielder Manor Solomon, who managed just 11 strikes, but the squad is still packed full of talent that have been linked with moves across Europe – including right-back Dodo, centre-back Mykola Matviyenko and midfielder Tete.
Their opponents Shakhtar, led by midfielder Tete (right) are experienced in this competition
Sheriff vs Dinamo Zagreb – Sherrif Stadion
You may not know much about the Moldovan outfit, who cruised to win their nation’s division last season with 99 points, but you should be plenty familiar with the Croatian side who dumped Tottenham out of the Europa League.
Spurs were overwhelming favourites to progress against Dinamo and reach the quarter-finals after securing a 2-0 first leg advantage, then took their lead to Croatia against a team whose manager had just quit after being sentenced to prison.
But Zagreb rallied to stun Jose Mourinho’s men and condemn them to one of their worst results in Europe as Mislav Orsic scored an incredible hat-trick to overturn their deficit.
Dinamo Zagreb will be favourites to progress to the groups against Moldovan side Sheriff
The Croatian outfit are on a high after beating Tottenham in the Europa League last season, which saw Mislav Orsic net a hat-trick
ALREADY IN THE GROUP STAGE DRAW…
Pot 1: Chelsea, Villarreal, Atletico Madrid, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, Lille, Sporting Lisbon
Pot 2: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Manchester United, PSG, Liverpool, Sevilla, Borussia Dortmund
Pot 3: Porto, Ajax, RB Leipzig, Atalanta, Zenit St Petersburg
Pot 3 or 4: Shakhtar/Monaco, Salzburg/Brondby, Benfica/PSV, Besiktas, Dynamo Kiev, Dinamo Zagreb/Sheriff Tiraspol
Pot 4: Club Brugge, Young Boys/Ferencvaros, AC Milan, Ludogorets/Malmo, Wolfsburg
Dinamo haven’t made too many signings this summer and have lost one of their top strikers Mario Gavranovic – who fired in 19 goals last season and starred for Switzerland at Euro 2020 – to Kayserispor.
But they have still hung onto their top scorer Orsic, who will be key going into this first leg after firing 24 strikes last season. They should be huge favourites to overcome Sheriff, whose big dangerman is Colombian forward Frank Castaneda. He netted a whopping 33 goals last season.
Salzburg vs Brondby – Red Bull Arena
No matter how many big clubs come fishing for Salzburg’s sea of talent, the club always manage to rebuild – and you should expect no less from the Austrian outfit this season.
The Austrian champions have already cashed in on striker Patson Daka, who went to Leicester in a £23m deal, while Brighton have poached midfielder Enock Mwepu for around £18m. However, they’ve brought back midfielder Bernardo from the AMEX following an initial loan after first joining them in 2015.
Midfielder Nicholas Capaldo has arrived from Boca Juniors, as has Polish defender Kamil Piatkowski.
So their squad is looking in good shape, and it will revolve mostly around forward Mergim Berisha, who netted the highest number of goals behind Daka last season, while Karim Adeyemi is becoming a key player in Salzburg.
Red Bull Salzburg are hoping to turn over a new leaf in the Champions League after selling a handful of their key players
Club legend Andreas Ulmer is still going strong in defence after 13 seasons and 492 appearances, although his centre-back partner Andre Ramalho has gone to PSV.
Brondby – winners of the Danish Superliga last season – won’t be given much hope of progressing here, but Salzburg should watch out for striker Mikael Uhre, who was the club’s top scorer last season with 20 goals.
August 18, 20:00 BST
Benfica vs PSV – Estadio da Luz
Another mouthwatering contest sees the Portuguese team – a staple of European football – take on the Dutch runners up at the Estadio da Luz in one of the biggest ties of the round.
Benfica could only manage a third-placed finish in the league last season but are still well placed for spot in the group stages, and they are armed with some impressive new recruits this term.
They’ve splashed out on Ukranian forward Roman Yaremchuk, who cost the club £14.5m from Belgian side Gent after he caught the eye by smashing in 23 goals last season. His arrival comes as a timely boost to Benfica after they lost last season’s top scorer Haris Seferovic to a muscle injury.
He partnered Luca Waldschmidt up front in their last game – a 2-0 win over Arouca in their national league – with both strikers on the scoresheet. Should boss Jorge Jesus want to give either man a rest, he also has another new signing in striker Rodrigo Pinho, while young starlet Goncalo Ramos is gunning to impress too.
Benfica’s new signing Roman Yaremchuk will be crucial against PSV after they lost top scorer Haris Seferovic to injury
PSV themselves are rebuilding after losing talisman Donyell Malen, and their hopes of getting through could rest on the performance of Eran Zahavi
PSV have sold their talisman Donyell Malen to Borussia Dortmund and are now preparing for life without their greatest weapon. Star full back Denzel Dumfries has also departed – heading to Inter Milan, so the burden will fall upon Israeli forward Eran Zahavi, a goal-getter who found the back of the net 17 times last season.
He won’t be able to single-handedly replace the presence of Malen, though, who struck an incredible 27 times. PSV haven’t made too many notable acquisitions and will instead have to rely on getting the best out of their squad.
Former Chelsea star Marco van Ginkel has finally made his move permanent from the Blues and is a big figure for the club having scoring 16 goals in all competitions from midfield last season, while they also have World Cup-winning midfielder Mario Gotze and English starlet Noni Madueke, who continues to go from strength to strength.
Malmo vs Ludogorets – Eleda Stadium
They’ve just dumped Steven Gerrard’s Rangers out of the Champions League, and the path to Europe’s elite now looks clear as Malmo gear up for a clash against Bulgarian side Ludogorets.
Malmo are a side we often see appear in the Europa League, but they will fancy their chances of making it through to the Champions League against an opponent who have serious experience of progressing to the groups.
Malmo dumped Rangers out of the Champions League and look nailed on for the group stages
The Swedish outfit – champions of their division – have a couple of players on their books English football fans may recognise. Former Ipswich left-back Jonas Knudsen and veteran forward Ola Toivonen – formerly of Sunderland – still rolling back the years at the age of 35.
They are hoping to make the groups for the first time since the 2014-15 season.
Their Bulgarian opponents haven’t been in the Champions League groups since 2016 but they are a club that is used to winning. They’ve won their national league the last ten times in a row and will be tricky customers for any team in the groups.
Young Boys vs Ferencvaros – Stadion Wankdorf
The Swiss oufit perked up the attention of English football fans – delighting the rivals of Tottenham Hotspur – when they came mightily close to dumping Spurs out of their first ever season in the Champions League back in 2010.
Unfortunately for Young Boys they were hammered 4-0 in the second leg after winning the first leg 3-2, but had memorable days in later years by reaching the group stages in 2018-19.
Young Boys are hoping for a first place in the Champions League group stage since 2018-19
The team from Berne – now managed by former Huddersfield Town boss David Wagner – come into this clash as Swiss champions, while the Budapest side were the kings of Hungary last season.
Wagner’s men will be hoping for a big performance from key striker Jean-Pierre Nsame, who has been with the club since 2017 and has since fired in nearly 100 goals from 167 games. Young Boys also have former Ajax sensation Miralem Sulejmani on the books in midfield as well as talented winger Christian Fassnacht.
Ferencvaros qualified for the Champions League groups last season for the first time since the 1995-96 campaign and went up against Barcelona and Juventus.