UEFA Champions League playoff draw revealed

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU, EMPIRE OF SOCCER

By MATTHEW LEVINE
Staff Writer

The proper Champions League competition is right around the corner. Some of Europe’s bigger clubs enter at the play-off stage to see just who will make it into the group stages.

While there are two brackets in the play-off – Champions Route and League Route – it is in the latter where the more intriguing match-ups fall.

Rafa Benitez is building a strong Napoli squad and will look to build on their narrow exit at the group stage last year. They face an Athletic Bilbao side that finished fourth in La Liga last term. Gonzalo Higuain should be the one to watch and should be the difference maker. After his World Cup jaunt with Argentina, they will need the striker fit and ready to go to help the Italian side get back to the group stages.

Arsenal may have hoped for an easier task than traveling to Turkey and Besiktas, but it could have been much tougher. The Gunners typically fair well when they visit the Mediterranean nation. Arsenal ran out 3-0 winners against Fenerbahce in Turkey and 5-0 on aggregate at this stage of the competition last year. Besiktas may sound familiar as it is where Jermaine Jones featured last year. It’ll be an uphill climb for the Turks as the Gunners always find a way through to the group stage.

In the Champions Route, Celtic gets a new lease on life in the UCL as Legia Warsaw was removed from the competition after bating the Scottish club in the previous round for fielding an ineligible player. The champions of the Scottish Premier League were humbled by the Polish club and will look to have a turnaround against Maribor of Slovenia in the play-off round.

Full Draw:

Champions Route

Maribor (SVN) v Celtic (SCO)
Salzburg (AUT) v  Malmo FF (SWE)
AaB (DEN) v APOEL (CYP)
Steau (ROU) v Ludogorets (BUL)
Slovan Bratislava (SVK) v BATE (BLR)

League Route

Besiktas (TUR) v Arsenal (ENG)
Standard Liege (BEL) v Zenit (RUS)
Copenhagen (DEN) v Bayer Leverkusen (GER)
LOSC Lille (FRA) v Porto (POR)
Napoli (ITA) v Athletic Bilbao (ESP)