UCL Preview: Arsenal in Istanbul, Napoli host Bilbao, more

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

 By MATTHEW LEVINE
Staff Writer

Arsenal are back in a familiar situation — needing to make it out of the play-off round to enter into the group stage of the Champions League.

It’s an area they continue to be successful in. They will look to do that again when they meet Besiktas and make it 17 successive seasons in the group stage.

Not only are the Gunners consistent in getting into the group stage of the Champions League, they are very strong against Turkish opponents. They have yet to lose in 90 minutes in seven meetings against Turkish clubs. The only blemish against a Turkish opponent was in the 2000 UEFA Cup Final, which Arsenal lost in a penalty shootout.

Arsenal will be without Yaya Sanogo and Kieran Gibbs, who both picked up injuries in the Gunners first Premier League match. Olivier Giroud most likely starts up top with Nacho Monreal slotting in at left back. The key player for the Gunners should be Aaron Ramsey, who continues to score goals in massive moments as well as putting in man of the match worthy performances in midfield.

For Besiktas, they will need Demba Ba to trouble the Arsenal backline. The Turkish club will hope to fare better against Arsenal than clubs from their nation have in the past, particularly in the attacking third. The Gunners have conceded just twice to Turkish opponents.

What To Look For

1. Napoli against Athletic Bilbao– Napoli may have felt hard done by last year when they exited at the group stages. They will look to right that, but first they must move past Athletic Bilbao to return to that stage.

The Italian side will have a lot of firepower when they host Bilbao. New signing Michu and Gonzalo Higuain, who has a strong goal-scoring record against Bilbao from his time at Real Madrid, will be the danger men going forward.

Bilbao are looking to reach a Champions League group stage only for the second time in their history after doing it in the 1998/99 edition. Away from home, the Spanish side may very well take a defensive approach. They can also take a good history against Italian sides into the opening leg, where they are unbeaten in their last five games.

2. Lille must shake trouble with Portuguese clubs– Lille has yet to win against Portuguese oppositions in their last four tries. Their opponent is FC Porto.

The French club have some key players that could help change their recent struggles. Divock Origi is fresh off a strong World Cup for Belgium, and after being sold to Liverpool, has returned on loan for the season. Rio Mavuba, who captains Lille, could be set to make his 50th UEFA club competition appearance.

One player to keep an eye on is Marcos Lopes. The youth Portuguese international is on loan from Manchester City and will no doubt want to impress against one of his native country’s biggest teams if he gets the chance.

For Porto, Jackson Martinez will be the key player to continue the French clubs struggles against Portuguese clubs.

3. No Witsel for Zenit– Tough-tackling midfielder Axel Witsel saw his two-game ban appeal rejected. He will be forced to miss the opening leg of the play-offs against his former club Standard Liege.

He picked up a red card against AEL Limassol of Cyprus in the opening game of the previous round. His suspension will conclude after Zenit’s trip to Belgium.

Zenit should still provide a tricky opponent for Liege. However, Zenit have had struggles in European matches in Belgium before and will look to avoid that this week. If they can get a positive result, they have yet to lose at home against Belgian opponents in Russia.

4. First chance at redemption for Celtic– After getting knocked out of the competition by Legia Warsaw, the Scottish champions got a reprieve. Now Celtic will look to find better form and advance to the group stages against Maribor.

Celtic travel to Slovenia to begin their play-offs campaign. They will look to get off to a much better start than they did in the previous round. It will be the first time Celtic play a Slovenian team and it’s one that has had success against Scottish sides.

Maribor is on a four-game unbeaten run against Scottish opponents. The Slovenians knocked out Celtic’s bitter rivals Rangers in this stage of the competition in the 2011/12 season.