Heading into Friday's draw for Champions League third round qualifying fixtures, Atletico Madrid was the name all the big boys were hoping to avoid. Based on their status as Champions League participants for the first time in 12 seasons, La Liga's fourth-place team could have been drawn against the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal or Juventus. The unlucky foe turned out to be Schalke, the German side that advanced to last year's quarterfinals. The Gelsenkirchen outfit will now have a tough time reaching the group stages. The other noteworthy fixture was no doubt met with groans in the home of Steve McClaren. The new boss at Dutch squad FC Twente will not be greeted warmly at the Emirates when his troops face Arsenal.
The third-round qualifying doesn't get the coverage and attention of the Champions League proper, but in many ways carries more pressure than the group stages. Look at a team like Liverpool, which got off to an awful start in the group stages last season, but still had time over the course of the six-game mini league to gather themselves, advance and eventually reach the semifinals. While the competition for the big teams may be weaker in these two-legged qualifiers, there's no time to fall behind and rally as there is in the group stages.
Last year I attended the third-round qualifier second leg between Celtic and Spartak Moscow in Glasgow, (that's when the picture at the top of the page was taken) and the constant reminder in the press before and after the game was how much money was at stake. There's roughly $10 million US waiting for group stage qualifiers, and that's cash that can have a major impact on many teams' annual budgets. The combination of high stakes, quality competition and the potential for season-altering victories and defeats make for some tense encounters.