FEATURE | BeNe in Europe: The state of affairs ahead of the play-offs

In one of the biggest seasons in UEFA club competition history, teams from across Europe are aiming to have a long and prosperous season on the continental stage. Ahead of the play-off rounds for the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League, let’s take a look at how things stand for the teams from Belgium and the Netherlands.

Champions League group stage: Club Brugge and Ajax

As domestic league winners, both Club Brugge and Ajax have already ensured themselves European football in the fall.

Club Brugge reached the competition’s first main round for the fourth year running and a fifth in the last six years. With this year being their 10th showing in the Champions League, they only trail Anderlecht (with 12) for the most showings by a Belgian club. The 1978 European Cup finalists have never passed the group stage, and since they will be in pot 4 in the draw, it will be difficult for the Blauw Zwart to get past this time as well.

Ajax will partake in the group stage of Europe’s most prestigious club competition for the 18th time, two more than the next best Dutch club PSV, who could join them. This will be the Amsterdam club’s fifth straight year in the competition. The four-time winners of the European Cup/Champions League have made it to the knockout stage on seven occasions including last season, where Benfica ended their run in the round of 16.

Champions League play-off round: PSV

The Eindhoven club have one more round of Champions League qualifying to partake in, facing last season’s Europa League finalists Rangers. The Eredivisie runners-up of last May have reached the Champions League group stage on 16 occasions and will hope to make it 17. The 1988 European Cup winners fell in this very round a year ago to Benfica, who they managed to avoid this time around. The Europa League is where Ruud van Nistelrooy’s men will be should they be unable to get the better of Rangers.

Europa League group stage: Feyenoord and Union St. Gilloise

Third in the Eredivisie last season, Feyenoord will have to make do with Europa League football. It is their fifth go in the Europa League proper. Only once in their previous four outings have they been able to successfully negotiate the six-game double round robin. Twice winners of the UEFA Cup, the Europa League’s predecessor, Arne Slot’s team will aim to make another European final as they did in the inaugural Europa Conference League last spring.

Union St. Gilloise become the ninth different Belgian team to take part in the Europa League group stage. Finishing second in the Jupiler Pro League last May, the Brussels-based side fell to Rangers in the Champions League third round of qualifying. They will hope to mimic Antwerp’s debut group stage showing in the tournament, where they finished second behind Spurs in 2020-21.

Europa League play-off round: Gent

Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s Gent will have a two-legged tie against Omonoia Nicosia of Cyprus to determine who will continue to the group stage and who will ply their European foray in the Europa Conference League. De Buffalo’s have reached this competition’s main round four times in the past, most recently in 2021-22. They will want to erase the painful memory of losing all six group games that year. Having reached the round of 16 in the Conference League last spring, the Belgian Cup winners have reason to be confident.

Europa Conference League play-off round: Anderlecht, Antwerp, AZ and Twente

The remaining European representatives from Belgium and Netherlands still face a round of qualifying in order to make the group stage.

Belgian Cup finalists from May, Felice Mazzu’s Anderlecht faltered at this very point to Vitesse a year ago. Finishing third in Belgium last season, the Brussels team brushed Estonian cup winners Paide aside in the third qualifying round. They will have a big challenge next, facing Young Boys from Switzerland. Having previously won the Cup Winners Cup and UEFA Cup, failing to make the group stage for the second season running would be considered an embarrassment for Les Mauves et Blancs.

Antwerp face a tough tie of their own in the play-offs, needing to get the better of Istanbul Basaksehir of Turkey to book a group stage place for the third successive season. The Great Old finished bottom of their Europa League group last autumn after knocking out Omonoia on penalties in the play-off round. Antwerp are the last Belgian side to make a European final, falling to Parma in the Cup Winners Cup showpiece in 1993. Drita and Lillestrøm were beaten in previous rounds of qualification to get to this point.

AZ have become European regulars over the past decade and a half. They are looking to partake in the group stage for the second consecutive year after falling to Celtic in the Europa League play-off round a year ago. The 1981 UEFA Cup finalists topped their section last fall but fell at the round of 16 to Bodø/Glimt. The winners of the Eredivisie’s European play-offs last season, the Alkmaar side defeated Tuzla City and Dundee United to reach this round where they will face Portugal’s Gil Vicente.

Twente have been absent from Europe since 2013-14 but achieved a fourth place Eredivisie finish to make a return to continental action. The 1975 European Cup finalists defeated Čukarički over two legs to earn a date with Fiorentina in the playoff round. Their last group stage appearance was in the Europa League back in 2012-13, where they finished bottom of their section and failed to collect a win.

David Parkes

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