Arsenal start trek to Champions League
MANCHESTER, England (AP) – Prestige and a cash bonanza for reaching the Champions League group stage awaits ten teams as the qualifying phase for Europe’s top competition reaches its climax over the next two weeks.
But if the pressure rises going into the two-legged playoff round, Arsenal never show it.
The English club is featuring at this stage for the seventh time in nine years and has won all 12 of its previous matches, maintaining its record of playing in every Champions League group stage since the 1998-99 season.
The biggest name in qualifying, Arsenal have been drawn against Besiktas with the first leg in Turkey tomorrow.
Clubs from the other top leagues in UEFA’s rankings – Athletic Bilbao (Spain), Bayer Leverkusen (Germany), Napoli (Italy) and FC Porto (Portugal) – are also joining in the fourth and final qualifying round that features 20 teams.
Each qualifier will earn a basic 8.6 million euros ($11.5 million) fee, plus bonuses for wins and draws and a share of television-rights money in a near 1-billion euro ($1.34 billion) pay out.
Ba Danger for Arsenal
There will be a familiar face to Arsenal in Besiktas’ starting line-up at Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul, which is hosting the game while Besiktas’ Vodafone Arena ground is being redeveloped.
Demba Ba is the Turkish team’s top striker after his summer move from Chelsea and he has made a good start to his spell in Besiktas, scoring a hat trick to help it to a 5-2 aggregate win over Feyenoord in the third qualifying round.
Napoli will be hoping for better luck in the Champions League this season ahead of their playoff against Athletic Bilbao.
The Italian side hold the unwanted record of having the most points of any team not to qualify from the group stage, after winning four matches from six and collecting 12 points last year.
Celtic only made it this far because of an administrative error by Legia Warsaw, and begin their second life in this season’s competition at Slovenian team NK Maribor on Wednesday.
Celtic lost 6-1 to Legia in the third qualifying round but the Polish side was punished for fielding an ineligible player in the second leg in Scotland, costing them a 3-0 “walkover” loss and putting Celtic through on away goals.
Leverkusen in form
Bayer Leverkusen are bidding to reach the Champions League for the second season in succession when they play FC Copenhagen.
New coach Roger Schmidt has been joined by exciting midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu and prolific striker Josip Drmic from Hamburger SV and Nuremberg, respectively.
Zenit in the goals
Zenit St Petersburg will look to continue their rich vein of scoring form when the Russian team visit Standard Liege on Wednesday.
Under coach Andre Villas-Boas, Zenit have won four from four to sit top of the domestic league, scoring 15 goals in the process.
The second legs are scheduled for August 26-27.