Before we get into the meat of who United might be playing in the Champions League Playoff Round, a quick note on how it all works. Thanks to the joys of seeding and club rankings Manchester United will not have to play Bayer Leverkusen or the frankly terrifying Valencia. Hooray for that.
United will avoid the other two seeded teams as well, though we don't know who they are yet. If Shakhtar Donetsk and Ajax make it through the third qualifying round, it will be them; if one doesn't, then Sporting Lisbon will be seeded; and if both don't, then CSKA Moscow will be seeded as well. Unless the Russians don't make it through as well, in which case the final seeding place will go to Lazio. Clear? Good. On to the hot information!
Sporting Lisbon, Portugal
Though one of Portugal's Big Three, Sporting haven't quite enjoyed the success of Benfica and Porto. This season, for example, while they finished eighteen points ahead of fourth-placed Braga, they finished six behind Porto in second; not quite stuck in limbo, but not quite in the race.
But they've some decent players. Islam Slimani is sharp up front, while Rumour mill favourite Bill — never really caught on, that — Carvalho patrols the midfield, a deadly combination of anticipation, tackling and a pencil moustache. Then, of course, there's Nani, who returned to his homeland and immediately rediscovered the knack of whapping the ball into the net from 30 yards.
If United do get drawn against Sporting, would it be appallingly cynical to suggest that United ensure any permanent deal for Nani is done after the qualifying matches have been played? Yes, yes it probably would. But the alternative would be sheer negligence.
Perhaps the trickiest of United's potential opponents, Lazio swiped the final Italian Champions League spot from Napoli thanks to (a) run of eight straight victories between mid-February and mid-April, which saw them briefly move above local rivals Roma into second, and (b) a totally ridiculous final day victory over Napoli in a game that saw Lazio go two up, then have a man sent off, then slump back to 2-2, then give away a penalty for 2-3 that Napoli missed, then score two more to seal the win. At some point in there Napoli had a man sent off as well. It was fun.
Whether they're quite as strong next season remains to be seen. Brazilian wunderkind Felipe Anderson, scorer of eleven goals this season, has been linked with most of the big clubs in Europe, United included. Louis van Gaal also reportedly maintains an interest in central defender Stefan de Vrij, even though he only moved to Italy a season ago. He has the twin advantages of being able to play football quite well and being Dutch. Up front, Miroslav Klose is still scoring goals, even though he's older than the city of Rome itself. We'd say his pace had gone, but he never had any.
CSKA Moscow, Russia
It's always exciting when a former legend returns to Old Trafford, and should the draw throw out CSKA Moscow then United will be welcoming home the one and only Zoran Tosic! Yes! He of five games over two seasons! He of no goals in that time! He that was likely only bought so that Adem Ljajic would come as well, only to find himself marooned in Manchester once the Glazers decided, in their infinite wisdom and generosity, that signing one of the most highly-rated kids in Europe wasn't such a great idea after all!
Still, they're no pushovers. Leonid Slutsky is a canny, experienced coach, and Igor Akinfeev, captain of the Russian national team and once a hardy perennial of the rumour mill, is still in goal. Earlier in this season's Champions League they drew with Manchester City at home then beat then at the Etihad, to general amusement. Let's hope we didn't laugh too hard.
Club Brugge, Belgium
Fun fact: this aspect of tBB once went to see Club Brugge play at the Jan Breydel stadium. The football wasn't great, and a six foot six man in full military fatigues a couple of seats down spent the entire first half talking to us in rapid, barking Flemish, apparently unperturbed by the fact that we couldn't understand a single word he was saying. Slightly concerning at the time — we moved seats at the break — but, looking back, exceptionally useful for having to write a paragraph about Club Brugge despite knowing literally nothing about them.
Anyway, Club Brugge won the Belgian Cup and finished top of the table in Belgium's ordinary season, only to be overhauled by eventual champions Gent in the championship playoff. Have you ever looked at the way the Belgian league works? It's a wonderful thing.
There's the final to come, but we're betting that nothing that goes down between Barcelona and Juventus is going to be as funny as the sight of Monaco strolling into north London and shoving not one, not two but three goal pies into Arsenal's baffled face. But as with CSKA, above, last season's emergent comedy is next season's potential tragedy, and along with Lazio, Monaco are the trickiest team in the draw.
As ever, the transfer market will play a part here, but the principality's current squad has a sprinkling of European experience — Ricardo Carvalho, Jeremy Toulalan, the sainted Dimitar Berbatov* — around the imposing midfield partnership of Joao Moutinho and Geoffrey Kondogbia, all supported by a lot of youth. They also have coach Leonardo Jardim, who steadied the ship after the collapse of the big spending project, and whose organised side achieved the most impressive defensive record in last season's group stage.
Incidentally, the French have a verb — entarter — which means to hit with a pie. What a wonderful people they are.
* It has been pointed out that Monaco have released the sainted Dimitar Berbatov. I speak for the whole website when I say: may your joke of a club be overwhelmed by teeming waves and tax inspectors.
Young Boys, Switzerland
For the last few years Swiss football has been Basel, then the rest, and sure enough Young Boys finished in second place in the season just gone, twelve points behind the champions. You may recall that last season they exited the Europa League at the round of 32 after getting a right gubbing from Everton. Mind you, you might also remember Manchester United getting a right gubbing from Everton. So let's not judge them too harshly.
Sparta Prague, Czech Republic
The most successful club in Czech football were pipped to the title this year, meaning they have to come and slum it with the other losers in the qualifying rounds. The economic realities of European football are such that the Czech Republic's best footballers tend not to stay at home for long, and these days Sparta's squad tends to include names familiar not from international tournaments but from cameos in the bottom half of the Premier League. Like Marek Matějovský, who was with Reading for two seasons, or Radoslav Kováč, formerly of West Ham.
Fortunately for the delicate shins of United's attackers, another former Hammer, Tomas Repka, has taken his psychotic glare and sharpened studs to pastures new.
In recent years, Turkey has been establishing itself as a refuge for players from Europe's stronger leagues who, for one reason or another, be it age or disfavour, find their careers at something of an impasse. This is why Fener's squad contains many familiar names, including Portuguese central defender Bruno Alves, Brazilian imp Diego, and Liverpool cult heros Raul Meireles and Dirk Kuyt. And the presence of not one but two former Liverpool players is plenty enough reason to want to avoid them here: imagine if one of them scored? They'd be cleaning up the narrative for days.
They are captained by former Newcastle United enigma Emre Belözoğlu, who is somehow still only 34. To be honest, we've only mentioned him here so we can draw your attention to this remarkable video, which shows Trabzonspor taking matters into their own hands after Emre escaped with a light punishment for racially abusing Didier Zokora.
If you're anything like tBB, then often you lie awake at night wondering: whatever happened to Luke Steele? Where is he now, that sometimes third-, sometimes fourth-choice goalkeeper, who was signed from Peterborough United, who seemed to be addicted to loan spells at Coventry, who despite spending five seasons at Old Trafford never actually made a first-team appearance for the club?
Well, as you've probably guessed by his mention here, he plays for Panathinaikos. And he actually plays! 36 games this season, it says here, including 16 clean sheets, as his team finished second in the league. Well done him. Sweet dreams, everybody.
Rapid Vienna, Austria
If you miss off the first letter of the name and type "apid vienna" into Wikipedia, it asks you if you meant "aphid vietnam". This is the sum total of tBB's knowledge of apid Vienna. Oh, man, we did it again.
Though traditionally the strongest team in Austria, they've finished second in the last two seasons following the injection of Red Bull into Salzburg. So in that sense, they're probably some kind of figurehead for the Against Modern Football movement, a symbol of what is right in a world dominated by what is wrong. They might not be, though. We don't pretend to have any great knowledge here. Hey, we can't even work an online encyclopaedia.
Incidentally, if you click on "aphid vietnam," Wikipedia asks you if you mean "april vietnam". And if you click on that it tells you it doesn't exist. We feel like Wikipedia's trying to make a point here; we've no idea what it is. But it's probably a good note on which to end.