Champions League play-offs: five things we learned from the first legs

Besiktas will be no push-overs for Arsenal at the Emirates

It’s very much a tradition at this point; Arsenal finish fourth, proceed to the Champions League play-offs, get drawn against a reasonably tricky side, progress to the group stages. However, from the evidence of the first leg in Turkey, it appears that Besiktas are definitely not to be under-estimated.

Despite almost scoring inside five seconds with an incredibly audacious effort straight from the kick-off by Demba Ba, Slaven Bilic’s men clearly possessed considerable threat up front and may dent Arsenal’s hopes with a precious away goal at the Emirates- something Arsenal failed to find at the Ataturk Stadium. Besiktas were unlucky not to come away with a victory after having seen Ba also denied by a fine save from Wojiech Sczensey while Olcay Sahan had the best opening in the second period but fired narrowly wide with his curling effort.

It would seem that Arsenal, on paper, will be strong for them at the Emirates- especially considering they are likely to have Mesuit Ozil, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski back in action- but it would be risky to immediately write off Besiktas’ chances of stealing a shock victory through Ba, Sahan or Mustafa Pektemek, who also looked very dangerous at times coming forward.

It won’t take much to figure out Bilic’s tactics heading to the Emirates – he is likely to afford Arsenal a degree of respect – but it is certainly the case that his side possess the quality and attacking threat to break Arsene Wenger’s European dreams before they really get started this season.

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Celtic ready to move forward from Legia Warsaw but still need to improve

Ronny Deila made it clear that he wanted to show that his Celtic side were ready to make the most of their reprieve after being reinstated in place of Legia Warsaw, who were excluded after fielding an ineligible player. Celtic’s performances against Legia were so thoroughly horrendous that their reinstatement led many to claim that they didn’t deserve a place in the competition. However, Celtic were clearly determined to make the most of their fantastic slice of luck and came away from Maribor with promising 1-1 draw.

Taking on the champions of Slovenia on Wednesday night, Celtic looked a more disciplined and tactically astute team to the men who lost 6-1 on aggregate to Legia. It’s not too much to claim that Celtic dominated Maribor for long spells and really they should have walked away with a victory but there was enough to prove that Maribor are unlikely to trouble Celtic all that much in the return leg. If Celtic do get through, they will count themselves as some of the luckiest men in European football but there will be no place to hide in the group stages.

The harsh reality for the Scottish champions is they need to improve dramatically in a relatively short space of time if they are to make it out of the group stages alive. Celtic Park becomes a singing fortress on special European nights but they will need much more than just the 12th man if they come up against Juventus, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich.

The important thing for Deila’s men is to register a dominant performance over Maribor in the second-leg, fully extinguish the Warsaw fall-out from memory and set their sights on preparing for Champions League nights to the best of their ability.

Porto and Zenit determined not to be European football’s forgotten men

Porto and Zenit both set one foot in the group stages with 1-0 away victories to Lille and Standard Liege respectively and they were crucial victories for clubs that are wilting. In 2012, Zenit looked to have everything in place the Champions League by storm; they had signed two of the hottest prospects in Hulk and Axel Witsel, were Russian league champions and had an ambitious manager in Luciano Spalletti. However, they haven’t exactly lived up to the billing and were shown the exit door by a superior Borussia Dortmund in the second round last season but are determined to show why they shouldn’t be forgotten about.

Zenit have managed to hold on to Hulk, Danny and Witsel and have also added Ezequiel Garay and Javi Garcia this summer which has boosted their depth in defence and midfield. André Villas-Boas has built a good reputation for himself in Russia following a couple of painful dismissals at Chelsea and Tottenham in England and is steadily moulding Zenit into fine European contenders.

Porto,on the other hand, have endured a troubled spell of late. After a decade of dominance in the Primer Liga where they notched up nine league titles in 11 years, they had to settle for third last season and watch as Benfica took the glory. Julien Lopetegui drafted in Adrian from Atletico Madrid and Bruno Martins Indi from Feyenoord to help with their process of rebuilding and their impressive victory away to Lille on Wednesday suggests that they are moving in the right track.

They got off to a winning start in the league at the weekend but will be desperate to show that they can scale the glorious European-conquering heights of the Mourinho and Villas-Boas eras. Lopetegui has a winning mentality drilled into him from his time in the Spanish national set-up and his process of restoring the pride of Porto has started well.

Napoli and Athletic Club finely poised heading to Bilbao

Tuesday’s 1-1 draw between Napoli and Atheltic in Italy looks to set the Spaniards in a stronger position heading into the return leg at Bilbao but Rafael Benitez’ men possess enough quality to make it far from a forgone conclusion.

Benitez will be disappointed that his side could not take full advantage at home, especially after new signing Michu came on as a substitute and squandered a glorious opportunity to make it 2-1. Napoli and Bilbao are clubs that have impressed in Europe in recent years and elimination before the Champions League even gets under way is borderline unthinkable to both clubs. Benitez guided Liverpool to triumph in 2005 and believes that the squad he has at Napoli are capable of pulling of the same feat. That may be highly unlikely but Napoli are too good a club not to play in this season’s competition and are uncomfortable close on missing out.

Athletic, who were competing in the Champions League for the firs time in 15 years, impressed at the Stadio San Paolo and managed to grab a priceless away goal thanks to Iker Munian. They are no strangers to upsetting the odds in Europe as they got the better of Manchester United in the Europa League in 2012 en route to the final and will have to summon a similar sense of courage and heart if they are to repeat the feat against a highly-fancied Napoli.

Disappointing results leave an uphill battle for Scandinavians

Scandinavian football does not receive the attention perhaps it deserves considering the stars that come from that part of the world but the three clubs that contested in the play-offs didn’t help their cause much as Malmo, FC Copenhagen and Aalborg all failed to win, leaving uphill battles for all of them.

Malmo, who once reached the European Cup final in 1979, perhaps stand the best chance of progressing as they scored an away goal in their 2-1 defeat to Salzburg. Emil Forsberg struck in stoppage time to give the Swedish side a glimmer of hope and they will need of the same to defeat the Austrians, who looked a stronger outfit.

FC Copenhagen will need a minor miracle if they are to get past Bayer Leverkusen as they lost 3-2 at home to the German side. All five goals were scored in the first half, with Copenhagen responding to an early Stefan Kiessling strike with a quick-fire double to put them 2-1 up for a short time. Copenhagen look to have decent quality in their team, Mathias Joergensen particularly catching the eye, but the odds are stacked against them winning 2-0 in Leverkusen.

Meanwhile their compatriots Aalborg, who pipped them to the Danish crown last season will face a tough test against APOEL Nicosia in Cyprus next week after only managing a 1-1 draw with them at home. Nicosia were the fairytale story of the Champions League in 2012 when they reached the quarter-finals and look to be in the driving seat against Aalborg. It is not certain that all three Scandinavian sides will fall at the first hurdle but they have it all to do against seemingly stronger opposition in the return legs.

Author Details

Matt Gault

European football columnist, supporter of Manchester United. Admirer of managerial charlatans like Klopp, Bilic and Bielsa.

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