The group stages of the Champions League are fast approaching with six spots up for grabs in the play-offs. Four of those have been reserved for champions from lower-tier European leagues whilst lower ranked teams from France, Ukraine, Portugal and the Netherlands are battling for one of the most lucrative prizes in football.
Here's a look at play-off results and takeaways from this week.
Play-off results and fixtures
Tuesday, Aug. 17
Sheriff 3, Dinamo Zagreb 0
Red Bull Salzburg 2, Brondby 1
Monaco 0, Shakhtar Donetsk 1
Wednesday, Aug. 18
Young Boys 3 Ferencvaros 2
Malmo 2 Ludogorets Razgrad 0
Benfica 2 PSV Eindhoven 1
Advantage Benfica in battle of European champions
The tie of the play-off round saw a repeat of the 1988 final as Benfica hosted PSV Eindhoven at the Estadio Da Luz. Unlike in that game in Stuttgart, it was the Portuguese side who emerged victorious on Wednesday night, though PSV's relentless pressure in the second half would suggest they will be quite the test on home soil in the Netherlands.
In front of a vocal but far from full crowd, Benfica started off in impressive fashion even if they struggled to dominate possession. They only needed one chance to take the lead in the 10th minute. A foul on Pizzi might have brought them a free kick, but instead summer signing Roman Yaremchuk took the move on, slipping a pass in behind for Rafa, whose scuffed shot was accurate enough to crawl in at the far post.
PSV dominated possession from then onwards, but did not particularly test the Benfica goal, though Eran Zahavi did score a fine volley from an offside position in the 28th minute. Instead, it rather suited the hosts to play on the counter, Yaremchuk doing fine work bringing the wide forwards into the game and Lucas Verissimo forcing a smart save from Joel Drommel in goal.
The resulting corner was met by Nicolas Otamendi at the back post, the former Manchester City center back flicking the ball to Julian Weigl whose hooked shot flew high into the net.
Two goals up at home by the break, Benfica seemed well placed to effectively wrap up qualification on the night but PSV were vastly improved in the second half, led by the outstanding youngster Cody Gakpo. Picking the ball up in midfield the 22-year-old kept driving at the defense until he reached the edge of the box, his curling strike taking the feintest of clips of Otamendi on its way into the goal. Meanwhile, Noni Madueke continued to probe away on the right flank with the Dutch side winning corner after corner through their fearless wingers.
From one such set piece, taken short in the 63rd minute, Gakpo lobbed a perfectly weighted pass into the space behind the Benfica defense toward the onrushing Mario Gotze. On a yellow card, any mistake by covering defender Rafa would have surely led to a penalty and second booking, but the winger judged his tackle to perfection as the hosts held on.
10 Young Boys win thriller against Ferencvaros
For entertainment, Berne was the place to be in a match that included red cards, missed penalties, goal-line scrambles and an overturned goal. And that was just 27 minutes in.
The tone for the game was rather set with the opening goal, a poor back pass miscontrolled by Mohamed Ali Camara. Franck Boli stole the ball off his feet before smashing it past Guillaume Faivre. It did not take long for the home side to respond, however.
Neat interplay on the right corner of the box opened up space for Meschack Elia just outside the box. Checking onto his right foot, his curling effort took an awkward deflection that took Denes Dibusz by surprise, but the Ferencvaros' look of thunder as Young Boys celebrated suggested that at the very least he believed he could have done more to block the shot.
Still, Young Boys proved to be their own worst enemy as Silvan Hefti hauled down Endre Botka in the box. Not only did that result in a penalty to Ferencvaros but a red card for the defender, the double-jeopardy rule not applying because Hefti had not made an attempt to play the ball. Myrto Uzuni's penalty hit the post but deflected off the back of goalkeeper Faivre. Young and white shirts descended towards the ball, which eventually squirmed in off the boot of Christopher Martins. As if the game could not get any more ludicrous, the goal was then ruled out for encroachment into the Young Boys' area, a phrase that one simply does not expect to file in soccer copy.
Madness soon swung to magnificence, a Young Boys corner cleared to Vincent Sierro on the edge of the box. Striking through the ball with the outside of his right boot, he seemed to know the ball was in the net as soon as it left his boot.
It took some time for the drama to crank up again in the second half but Ulisses Garcia's goal was worth the wait, the left back rushing on to a pass, jinking past opponents and bending a shot home from just outside the area. Moments later, Uzuni went close to teeing up Boli with a bicycle kick as abnormal proceedings were resumed.
The game's fifth goal was as good as any that proceeded it, Boli hitting the target with another powerful right-footed effort that leaves this tie fascinatingly poised ahead of next week's second leg in Budapest. More of the same please!
Malmo close in on group stages
Meanwhile, Malmo look well placed to reach the group stages for the first time in six years after a solid 2-0 win over Ludogorets at home. The Swedish side may have struggled for possession in the first half, but they looked much the more likely to score, with nine shots to their visitors two. A smartly taken short corner in the 27th minute was enough to give Malmo the lead they deserved, Veljko Birmancevic finding space on the edge of the box to connect with Oscar Lewicki's cross and fire his side into the lead.
Ludogorets strugged to repel Malmo's darts down the flank early in the second half, Erdal Rakip and Antonio Colak combining to tee up the onrushing Anders Christiansen. His shot was well saved but Rakip should have done better with the rebound than skew a first time volleyed shot wide.
The pressure told in frustrating fashion for the Bulgarian side, who had numerous opportunities to clear the ball before Christiansen thumped an effort at goal. It was all Kristijan Karlina could do to parry the shot with Jo Inge Berget on hand to convert the rebound.
And here is a reminder of how Tuesday's games played out:
Sheriff on the brink of UCL history
Moldova have never had a representative in the Champions League group stage. Their serial title winners Sheriff had not been so close in more than a decade. That might all be about to change after a wonderful win in Tiraspol on Tuesday.
Victory over Red Star Belgrade proved to Dinamo that this was not a team to be taken lightly and indeed one could not argue that they were taking their opponents lightly. Indeed the Croatian side might have taken the lead in the 34th minute as two of their star players combined to cut through the Sheriff defense.
Luka Ivanusec delivered a perfectly weighted through ball to the run of Lovro Majer. A clip over the goalkeeper looked to be enough to hand Dinamo the lead, but Danilo Arboleda was quick enough to hack the ball clear of the goalline.
Ultimately though the best chances of the first half consistently fell to the hosts. Henrique Luvanor hit the post in the seventh minute, one of nine efforts worth a combined 1.14 expected goals that they registered before the break. It took time for the pressure to translate on the scoresheet but it was worth the wait for the 6,000 supporters at the Sheriff Stadium, a brilliant pass into the channel by Cristiano, a player who looks more than ready to grace the Champions League group stages, seized upon by Adama Traore, whose low drive was well beyond Dominik Livakovic as it rolled into his back post.
That lead was doubled early in the second half in spectacular fashion, a flowing move down the left unleashing Momo Yansane hooking a cross onto the run of Dimitris Kolovos. Livakovic did not get near it, if he had the thunderous volley might well have taken his hand off.
Playing on the counter rather suited the explosive pace of Cristiano and Traore, who added a third as he burst on to Luvanor's through ball and rolled the ball into the bottom of the net. Dinamo have previous with overturning the odds at home but even a repeat of the 3-0 victory they recorded over Tottenham at the Maksimir Stadium would only take them to extra time next week. A 34th nation looks set to be represented at the group stage, the first since Azerbaijan's Qarabag four years ago.
Monaco face tough task in Ukraine
Monaco seemed to have blocked Pedrinho's path to goal even after a smart give-and-go with a teammate. Three defenders surrounded the young Brazilian, with Aurelien Tchouameni offering a little nudge to the back in an attempt to bring him down. That would not do the job. Quick feet took him around Benoit Badiashile before he sent Radoslaw Majiecki the wrong way. Carrying a hip injury, it seemed the young Brazilian had offered all he could with that jinking run and by the start of the second half he had been withdrawn with Roberto De Zerbi presumably keeping one eye on next week's second leg in Kharkhiv.
Monaco's response to the opener was so immediate and impressive that Niko Kovac must have been wondering why they could not have started in such an assertive way. Badiashile and Kevin Volland failed to get regulation headers on target inside the box whilst Wissam Ben Yedder put one shot wide and one too close to Anatolii Trubin in the Shakhtar goal.
Trubin proved to be quite the challenge for the Monaco forwards to beat though both Tchouameni and Aleksandr Golovin might have offered him more of a test had they not curled relatively straightforward shots down to his left either side of half time. Though the hosts dominated possession and territory it was not until the 82nd minute that the Shakhtar goalkeeper was really challenged, needing to flick a low drive by substitute Myron Boadu against his own post.
The quality of Monaco's build-up augurs well for their trip to Ukraine next week but they will need to create far better chances in eight days time if they are to ensure there are three French representatives in the group stages.
Aaronson saves Salzburg at the death
Brenden Aaronson's added-time winner ensured that Red Bull Salzburg's dominance of their first leg at Brondby did not go unrewarded, a 2-1 home win setting them up favorably for the second leg in Denmark next week.
It was a dream start for Brondby in their bid to reach the group stages for the first time since 1998, Mikael Uhre showing impressive strength to hold the ball up in the box before drilling home from close range in the fourth minute. It would take them well over an hour to register another effort on Philipp Kohn's goal.
A summer of change is very much the norm for Salzburg, so admired across Europe for their ability to find gems that will then go on to great things elsewhere. This summer saw Patson Daka and Enoch Mwepu depart for the Premier League whilst American manager Jesse Marsch departed for sister club RB Leipzig. Still there was plenty of talent still left over, not least Karim Adeyemi. The Germany international pounced on the rebound from Aaronson's shot, firing a first time effort through bodies and into the far post.
But for Mads Hermansen, who made nine saves in his first Champions League game of the season, Salzburg might have all but stamped their passage to the group stages. His resistance and that of the defense ahead of him could not quite hold on long enough as a smart through pass by center half Oumar Solet found Aaronson in the box to beat Hermansen with a shot at his near post.