Avatar & New Members Forum Mod
- May 8, 2011
Manchester United have returned to the Champions League... but tricky trips could await in Play-off Round | Daily Mail Online
Manchester United can breathe a little easier in the final two matches of the Premier League season after ensuring their return to the Champions League.
It would take an extraordinary collapse now for Louis van Gaal's team to be pipped by Liverpool and lose fourth place - United are six points ahead and have a superior goal difference of 14.
But their chances of catching Manchester City in second and Arsenal in third are also unlikely, meaning they are destined for the Play-off Round on their return to European competition.
Given the calibre of their potential opponents in this two-legged tie in August, reaching the group phase is by no means a foregone conclusion.
The Play-off Round, which next season will be played on August 18/19 and 25/26, a couple of weeks after the start of the Premier League, is divided into two sections.
There is a 'Champions Route' which channels through clubs that have won the domestic league in some of Europe's less-heralded nations and ensures representation in the group stage is as broad as possible.
There is then the 'League Route' which takes in the clubs that finish second, third or fourth in the more prominent European leagues. United will, of course, be in here.
Luckily for them, a seeding system based on the UEFA Club Coefficient should spare them a difficult meeting with the likes of Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen or Napoli.
Despite not featuring in the Champions League this season for the first time since 1995-96, United are still ranked 10th in the coefficient as it stands based on their performance over the past five years.
This will mean they are the top seed in the Play-off Round draw and, based on the current league tables and the current coefficient ranking, will keep them apart from Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen, Shakhtar Donetsk and Napoli.
However, it may not spare them from the kind of awkward, long-haul trek Van Gaal will desperately want to avoid at such an early point in the season.
The closely-fought Turkish league, which sees Galastasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas separated by just two points with four round to play could well mean a trip to Istanbul if the draw falls unkindly.
Arsenal, very familiar with the Play-off Round in recent seasons, only beat Besiktas by a single goal over two legs when they met last season.
In Russia, the second Champions League spot is a battle between Krasnodar and CSKA Moscow, again meaning a four-hour flight.
They could also find themselves facing the equally hostile atmospheres of Panathinaikos or PAOK in Greece.
Sporting Lisbon or Ajax are other potential opponents, as are Lazio, whose underwhelming recent performances in Europe mean they lurk 39th on UEFA's list.
Although United would be strong favourites to progress regardless of their opponents, the Play-off Round is far from straightforward and the unthinkable scenario of demotion to the Europa League looms over all the leading lights who find themselves here.
You have to earn the right to play in the Champions League proper and United have been warned.