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Jul 25, 2013

Everything to lose

The mood of the club representatives after the draw for the third qualifying round of the Champions League was one of unified trepidation. Lyon's presidential advisor Bernard Lacombe underlined that "the teams aren't completely ready yet", while PSV Eindhoven's chairman Ron Verkerk echoed Lacombe's closing gambit of "we'll see what happens."

• UCL third round draw

Taking part in the non-champions half of the qualifiers is a huge opportunity for Europe's middle-ranking powers, offering a chance to gain - or lose - not just a sporting purpose, but an unparalleled financial boost for the season. A reminder of exactly how much in cold hard cash arrived this week, as UEFA released the Champions League earnings table for 2012-13, with some surprises.

Juventus surprisingly topped the earnings table (calculated from a combination of UEFA central funds, prize money and television revenue) with £56.17 million, while Montpellier's £27.82 million was higher than the figures gleaned by either Arsenal or Chelsea, despite the fact that the French debutants were eliminated in the group stages. There is serious money to be made by clubs outside the very elite of Real Madrid, Manchester United and company, and this week's participants have to be set to take it.

Looking at Tuesday's first leg ties, Lyon will perhaps be the most desperate to take a step closer to the promised land of the group stage against Swiss Super League runners-up Grasshopper Zurich. The last two years have seen the club go on a brutal economy drive after a period of wild spending. With the new 58,000-capacity Stade des Lumieres set for delivery in late 2015, president Jean-Michel Aulas has slashed the wage bill by 28% in the last two years, with the exits of Hugo Lloris, Cris and Michel Bastos indicative of a more youth-focused approach, based around academy products like playmaker Clement Grenier, who turned his back on Arsenal's interest to ink a new deal until 2016 this summer.

Nevertheless, they feel as if they belong here. Having qualified for the last-16 on nine consecutive occasions before last season's drop into the Europa League, a return to the Champions League is absolutely crucial to the former French champions' hopes of stepping up their recovery - though due to Portugal overtaking France in UEFA's co-efficient table, they must negotiate an extra round compared to Lille, last year's third-placed team. Grasshopper, who recently tempted Euro 2004 wunderkind Johan Vonlanthen out of early retirement, are underdogs with everything to gain.

Zenit St Petersburg are another club with a game-changing stadium move on the horizon, as they aim for a third successive group stage qualification with Denmark's Nordsjaelland first on the menu. There is nevertheless a sense of inertia around Luciano Spalletti's side. The returns of Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Andrey Arshavin appear to be populist rather than representing genuine progress; the suspicion in Russia is that they're shirt-sellers, rather than enduringly top players.

It's not all bad news. The richly talented but disruptive Igor Denisov has moved on to Anzhi, and they really should make short work of Nordsjaelland. Danny's return to form is a huge boost, with the Portuguese in sparkling touch during the season's opening weeks. Even if the Danes retain the iconic Nikolai Stokholm, they have lost a string of key players since we last saw them in Champions League action in that hammering at Chelsea; Michael Parkhurst, Joshua John and Jores Okore (the latter having joined Aston Villa) have all moved on. All that really stands in Zenit's way is, well, Zenit - a not-insignificant hurdle given past chokes against Auxerre and Malaga, among others.

PSV hope to end a four-year absence from the competition as they take on Zulte Waregem, who came within a match of taking the Belgian title from eventual champions Anderlecht in a thrilling season finale. Zulte may struggle to build on the momentum from last season; Thorgan Hazard has returned from Chelsea after a highly-influential loan spell last season, but coveted midfielder Junior Malanda is almost certain to leave.

Yet the difficulty for the Eredivisie runners-up is less buffing up on their opponents, but more about knowing their own team after a frenzied summer of transfer activity thus far. Jeremain Lens (Dynamo Kiev), Kevin Strootman (Roma), Dries Mertens (Napoli) and Erik Pieters (Stoke) have all been sold so new signings including Jeffrey Bruma (Chelsea), Stijn Schaars and the prodigious Adam Maher will have to pick up the baton quickly. PSV mark their centenary this season, and want to celebrate in style.

Few Fenerbahce fans, however, will accept that this season's Champions League means more to any other club than their own. The Istanbul giants make their return to the competition at home to Red Bull Salzburg on Wednesday, having been set for a lengthy absence from it only days ago.

It's been incorrectly reported in some places that Fenerbahce's two-year UEFA competition ban for alleged match-fixing has been overturned; in fact, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has suspended the ban pending its full examination of the appeal case. A final decision will be made by CAS on August 28 - the day before the group stage draw, by which point hurdling two Champions League rounds could be in vain if the call goes against the Yellow Canaries (assuming progression). It's a lot to block out as they take on the ambitious Austrians, led by the prolific former Barcelona B forward Jonathan Soriano.

In terms of quality, Fenerbahce should simply be too strong, with Bruno Alves, Michal Kadlec, Samuel Holman and promising young midfielder Alper Potuk all added to an already good squad this summer. However, they - like Zenit - have form for stumbling when least expected, having surprisingly bombed against Young Boys and Spartak Moscow in their last two qualifying appearances. One thing that can be guaranteed is an atmosphere that will raise the hairs on the back of the neck at the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium.

It promises to be just the tip of the iceberg in what will be a tense week for the participants. The most nerve-jangling rounds of European competition often slip under the collective radar, though the clubs to whom they mean so much will be able to think of little else.

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