The winners of Celtic-Cluj will face Slavia Prague in the final Champions League qualification round later this month. Slavia reached the Europa League quarterfinals last season, eliminating Sevilla – who practically own that trophy – on the way.
They also disposed of Bordeaux and Genk before losing to eventual winners, Chelsea. Dinamo Kiev knocked them out in Champions League qualification.
Although this will be Slavia’s first Champions League qualifier, they have played four domestic league games already, so are likely to be as fit as Celtic, should the sides meet in two weeks.
Two central defenders at the heart of that Europa League run were sold this summer (both heading to Belgium), with much of the money (€4m) going on a creative mid Romanian, Nicolae Stanciu (26), brought home from Saudi – a significant investment for a Romanian club.
Two years ago Slavia were knocked out at the qualification stage by Apoel Nicosia (another team we could have been drawn against today), while Anderlecht eliminated them from the Europa qualifiers three years ago. Viktoria Plzen, who finished runners up to Slavia in May, reached the Champions League group stage last season, where they finished behind Real Madrid and Roma, but above CSKA Moscow.
Slavia and Plzen showed enough last season to indicate that Czech clubs are dangerous, but this is the playoff round and we were always going to need to work for it.
Cluj first: no injuries, no suspensions, please.