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Europe's big guns unlimber

Tue 20 Jul by Mark Gleeson

StoryOfWeek

The curtain is beginning to fall on summer in Europe and that heralds the start of a new soccer season that has already begun in earnest for clubs fighting for a place in the group stages of the 2021-22 UEFA Champions League competition.

Football is slowly returning after the European summer and the UEFA Champions League dominates the midweek fixtures with league campaigns in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland getting underway at the weekend.

It is a legacy of the pressured fixture list that Champions League preliminary rounds are already underway, while most European leagues are yet to start. Therefore many clubs are shot straight from pre-season preparations into arguably their most important matches of the season.

This time the early rounds are back to their standard two-legged home-and-away format after last season’s COVID-ravaged campaign saw just single ties in the preliminary rounds.

The new Champions League campaign has completed two preliminary rounds already and this week those winners are joined by a bevy of top clubs, including past winners like PSV Eindhoven from the Netherlands, Glasgow Celtic of Scotland and Red Star Belgrade.

Celtic have a tough first-leg tie against Danish club FC Midtjylland tonight at Parkhead, while PSV will have their hands full against Galatasaray. The first leg is in the Netherlands tomorrow followed by the return in Istanbul next week.

Losers from last week’s Champions League qualifiers drop down to the new UEFA Conference League, a third annual club competition for Europe in which there are also new teams entering the third round on Thursday.

Belgium’s Ghent should be a banker against Valerenga of Norway, but Aberdeen of Scotland might struggle at home to Hacken from Sweden.

Friday marks the start of the premier league in Belgium where Standard Liege host Racing Genk, the runners-up last season. The favourites for the title are defending champions Club Brugge, who beat Genk 3-2 on Saturday in the Super Cup.

The Swiss premier league gets underway on Saturday when Young Boys Berne begin their bid to take the title for a fifth successive season. Before that Basel had won it eight years in a row, meaning the last champions outside of these those two sides was FC Zurich in 2009.

In Germany, two Bundesliga giants kick off the new German second division campaign as freshly relegated Schalke 04 take on Hamburg. Both are seeking to restore lost lustre.