Europa League aim for silenced big guns
Some of Europe's biggest clubs will this week look to qualify for the UEFA Europa League group stage as they seek to achieve continental success as well as maintain their domestic focus.
The gulf between the participating clubs is huge and, in financial terms, nobody can talk of a level playing field. The likes of Welsh league outfit The New Saints, who this week host CSKA Sofia, can dream of mixing it with millionaires they would normally only see playing on television while sat in their own armchairs.
For money-no-object Manchester City, who have been bankrolled to the tune of a reported €350m since Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan took over in August 2008, the club also have other aims. To win the English Premier League and, perhaps as a first step to that end, to secure qualification to the UEFA Champions League, having just missed out last season.
Thursday's hosting of Romanian side FC Timisoara is therefore a mere hors d'oeuvre before the main courses to come, a sideshow to whet the appetite of fringe players in a super-sized squad. "The club has changed ridiculously, I'm just glad to be a part of it," defender Micah Richards admitted on City's website as he contemplated the battle for places. City already have a one goal lead thanks to Mario Balotelli's debut strike in the away leg.
After being outclassed at the City of Manchester Stadium, Liverpool might quietly agree after their 3-0 defeat that getting back into the Champions League may prove beyond them once again this season. Five long years after the Reds' memorable European Cup triumph in Istanbul, Roy Hodgson's side head for Turkey on Thursday seeking to preserve a 1-0 lead over Trabzonspor - while midfielder Javier Mascherano strives to complete his transfer to Barcelona so he can partake of the Champions League instead.
Aston Villa, European champions in 1982, are another side having to clutch at the Europa League straw as they try to build on a 1-1 draw away to Rapid Vienna. The Midlands side have long entertained hopes - realised instead by Tottenham last season - of gatecrashing the Premier League's top four but this season already Martin O'Neill has resigned as coach while star midfielder James Milner has accepted the potential riches Manchester City has to offer. Last Sunday then brought a humiliating 6-0 defeat at Newcastle and the Champions League dream seems set to be a forlorn hope once more.
Scottish sides have long since become used to dining at the European game's lower table but will hope for safety in numbers on Thursday as Celtic face Dutch side Utrecht 2-0 up from the home leg. The two other Scottish sides have work to do, however, as Dundee United lost 1-0 at home to Greek side AEK Athens and Motherwell must overcome a 2-1 away deficit against Odense of Denmark.
Veteran German midfielder Michael Ballack has also had to downgrade after joining 2002 Champions League finalists Bayer Leverkusen from Chelsea, but his side are almost through with a 3-0 cushion against Ukraine's Simferopol.
Juventus, who like Leverkusen, Liverpool and Villa have seen more illustrious days, should complete the job against Sturm Graz of Austria leading 2-1 from the away leg. Elsewhere, Russian side Sibir Novosibirsk will hope to keep PSV Eindhoven at bay after winning the first encounter 1-0.