With all else that is happening in and around White Hart Lane and the organisation that is Tottenham Hotspur, the forthcoming Olympics and some Brit riding his bicycle around France, it feels that the draw for the UEFA Europa League third round went largely un-heralded.
And rightly so, some may argue. After all, who cares Georgian cup-winners FC Dila Gori could meet Anothorsis Famagusta – who qualified via a peculiar play-off system in Cyprus – in the next round? It’s a tin-pot cup right? Too many games and not enough prestige. I beg to differ at this point. A quick scan of the teams who have already assembled does read like a “Who’s who” of European football, albeit some of the named have lost their lustre over the years. Of course, the aforementioned Cypriots visited the Lane in 2007 and were promptly taken to the cleaners before almost causing a scare in the return leg.
This is not a reference to the teams from San Marino, Wales or Malta who – no offence intended – were never going to put up much resistance and did not see their countries’ representation carry to the second qualifying round. No. There are already some eye-wateringly tough teams milling about testing (and being tested by) the relative minnows. Young Boys of Bern, for example – Spurs’ Champions League opponents in the play-off round of 10/11 – are facing Zimbru Chisinau of Moldova, themselves seasoned European campaigners, who – lest we forget – Spurs ran into during their short-lived 1999/2000 UEFA Cup campaign.
Also in the second-round mix are such fallen giants as Rapid Bucharest, Slovan Bratislava, FC Twente, Hajduk Split and former European Champions Red Star Belgrade – all of whom have faced Tottenham Hotspur in one form of European Competition or another down the years. The new money of Anzhi Makhachkala also creeps in among these one-time-big-fish.
Soon it gets interesting however. In the third round, some juggernauts hove into view. Four former European Champions in Liverpool, Inter Milan, Marseille and Steuea Bucharest all await the second-round victors – with Lazio and Newcastle United lurking in the play-off round to finish off any stragglers.
Unbelievably, teams may have had to play up to eight games to reach the draw for the group stage of the competition. Their prize? Four teams stand at the end pre-destined to sit atop the seedings for the group stage draw and these will be the goal of the Differdange 03s and Lech Poznans of the second round – these four represent their ‘cup final’.
One name stands out among the four, seemingly out of place in the context of recent European endeavours and last year’s 4th-place in the Premier League. Tottenham Hotspur stands in a manner akin to the Black Knight of literature, none of the other entrants will want to be drawn with the conquerors of both Milans and all will be wary that the north Londoners have something of a point to prove in the shadow of the anti-football that sees them compete in the 2012/13 Europa League.