PREVIEW: PARTIZAN BELGRADE - ANDERLECHT
Sacha Kljestan will hope to take the field on Wednesday evening as Anderlecht gun for the Champions League group stage on their first-leg play-off visit to Partizan Belgrade.
Anderlecht are looking to end their extended Group Stage drought which has seen them fall out of the qualifying rounds each season since their last appearance in 2006-07. While Partizan will certainly be no pushovers, the Purple & White should be considered as favorites going into the two-game play-off.
The Serbian champions have only passed through Champions League qualification rounds once in their history when they edged by Newcastle in 2003, but have otherwise found themselves watching the pinnacle of European competition from afar.
To their credit, the Belgrade-based team does have a pair of players who were on the squad for their accomplishment seven years ago - forward Ivica Iliev and midfielder Saša Ilić - however could find the Belgian powerhouse too tough to handle.
Anderlecht have had a blazing start to the new season on all fronts, notching up five wins in six tries and going undefeated overall in three competitions, and will be high on confidence after their 4-0 league trouncing of Germinal Beerschot over the weekend.
While Kljestan sat as an unused substitute in that particular game, his strong play through Anderlecht's first two Champions League games - an aggregate 6-1 win over The New Saints - in which he notched a goal and an assist should make him a likely candidate to see minutes, if not be in the starting lineup of coach Ariël Jacobs.
The Belgian champions, who have never faced Partizan, are fortunate to have a less daunting road to the group stage this season than the previous season when they were blown out by Lyon by an 8-2 combined score at the same stage. They will nevertheless need to be wary of carelessly falling behind as they visit Stadion FK Partizan.
Even with the season still in its early stages, Jacobs is already having a selection headache with mounting injuries, headlined by the ankle injury over the weekend of starting striker Tom De Sutter, who is expected to miss several months as he recovers.
Additionally, midfielders Jonathan Legear and Lucas Biglia both missed the trip thanks to respective hamstring and shoulder injuries, possibly tipping his hand to give Kljestan a run from the go.
The one upside is the previously unexpected inclusion of former wantaway midfielder Jan Polák in the squad, after the Czech international signed a one-year extension with the club, ending several weeks of transfer drama which kept him out of the previous set of qualification games.
Partizan have only one major injury concern, as central playmaker Almami Moreira is doubtful to play thanks to a knee problem. Additionally, midfielder Stefan Babović will not be able to play for the team after re-joining from Nantes as his signing occurred after the deadline to register for the round.