Champions League playoff round: Tie-by-tie analysis

Posted by Andy Brassell

The likes of Arsenal and AC Milan face tough ties in the play-off round.GettyImagesThe likes of Arsenal and AC Milan face tough ties in the play-off round.

A host of top sides face tough ties in the Champions League playoff round as they look to book their places in the group stage. Andy Brassell breaks down Friday’s draw.

Olympique Lyonnais vs. Real Sociedad

A rematch of the last tie Real Sociedad played in the Champions League, under French coach Raynald Denoueix in 2004, this may not be the biggest game in terms of names but promises to be fascinating. These are two young, energetic teams based mainly on academy products.

Asier Illarramendi, arguably the Basque club’s standout graduate, has jumped ship to Real Madrid, but they have retained the bulk of an exciting squad under new coach -- and erstwhile assistant -- Jagoba Arrasate. Former Arsenal forward Carlos Vela is also flourishing at the Anoeta.

Lyon are coached by Vela’s fellow Arsenal alumnus Remi Garde, and he will put his faith in midfield youth products and now full France internationals Maxime Gonalons and Clement Grenier, after iconic striker Lisandro Lopez left this week. Grenier scored the winner in the second leg of the third qualifying round against Grasshopper Zurich. La Real’s French winger Antoine Griezmann certainly will be happy -- he told ESPN FC in a soon-to-be-published interview that this was his preferred tie, having been born and brought up in nearby Macon.

Schalke 04 vs. Metalist Kharkiv

Schalke are becoming Champions League regulars, but having scraped into the fourth spot on the final day of a traumatic 2012-13 season, they are not repeating the extravagances of yesteryear. Modest purchases of future stars such as Leon Goretzka and Christian Clemens are the order of the day, and the 2011 semifinalists are pinning most of their hopes on Julian Draxler, the 19-year-old who has -- significantly -- been bequeathed the No. 10 shirt for this campaign.

Jens Keller’s side will need to be up to speed quickly against the Ukrainian Premier League runner-up, who already have five competitive matches in their legs at the time of writing. Metalist have been in good form, too, quickly reprising their position as Shakhtar Donetsk’s most realistic challengers.

The return of Marco Devic -- who this season is set to become the club’s all-time record goal scorer -- is a huge boost, and the lively Argentinian winger Alejandro Gomez, signed from Catania, will be eligible to make his European debut for the club at the Veltins Arena. The pair will be well-placed to take advantage of any defensive lapses by the Bundesliga side.

Pacos de Ferreira vs. Zenit St Petersburg

It’s the fairy tale against the money machine, with the Portuguese Liga’s surprise package from last season, Pacos de Ferreira, facing wealthy former Russian champion Zenit. Now coached by Costinha, the man who scored Porto’s late equaliser at Manchester United in 2004 that prompted that Jose Mourinho celebration, they have lost some important players, including midfielders Josue and Luiz Carlos.

Having steamrollered Nordsjaelland -- who drew with Juventus in last season’s group stage -- Zenit look in good touch for Europe despite a scratchy start in the Russian Premier League. There is one romantic aspect to Zenit’s side of the tie: With Paços using Porto’s Estadio do Dragao, Brazil’s Hulk will get to return to the arena where he made his name.

PSV Eindhoven vs. AC Milan

Perhaps the tie of the round between two former competition winners, it’s hard to imagine that Europe’s eyes won’t be glued to this one. It recalls the thrilling 2005 semifinal between the two, when Guus Hiddink’s side came to the brink of a stunning comeback against Carlo Ancelotti’s men, notably with a brace by Philip Cocu, the new PSV coach.

Many thought the Eredivisie side might struggle in their current phase of reconstruction, with Kevin Strootman, Jeremain Lens and Dries Mertens having left, but they were simply imperious in dismissing Belgium’s Zulte Waregem from the competition in the third qualifying round. Netherlands under-21 star Memphis opened the floodgates against Zulte with a wonderful strike, but playmaker Adam Maher, signed from AZ, promises to provide the main danger.

It has been a far calmer "mercato" at the San Siro, so one senses Milan’s best bet is to get after PSV’s newly assembled defence, with the hugely promising partnership of Stephan El Shaarawy and Mario Balotelli having the quality to cause the Dutch side big problems. The excellent Riccardo Montolivo and his midfield colleagues must be ready for PSV’s aggressive, high-pressing game.

Fenerbahce vs. Arsenal

Theo Walcott
PA PhotosTheo Walcott's pace could be key for Arsenal.

This tie immediately poses a series of questions. Can Arsenal really offer Luis Suarez Champions League football with utter certainty? Will Fenerbahce’s efforts be in vain, with the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s final decision on their UEFA ban for match-fixing ready to be announced Aug. 28?

The Turkish Super Lig runner-up are certainly doing everything they can to fulfill their obligations, having put away FC Salzburg in good style in the third qualifying round. Their potent attack was on its best form in the second leg, with the superb Moussa Sow leading the way and now with a fine foil in Pierre Webo. With established names such as Bruno Alves and Raul Meireles in the ranks, the ambition of Ersun Yanal’s side could not be clearer.

Arsenal would have been hoping for an easier tie, and will have to negotiate an opening leg in one of the competition’s more cacophonous stadiums, the Sukru Saracoglu. If Fenerbahce have a weakness, it’s that they can be a little one-paced, so Theo Walcott will surely play a big part, and it could be up to Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey to set the tempo in midfield.

Dinamo Zagreb vs. Austria Vienna

The Croatian champions struggled badly in a tough group last term, but they are not without hope. Wonderkid Alen Halilovic is still there -- for now -- despite strong interest from Tottenham, and quality has arrived in the shape of former Cluj right back Ivo Pinto and Algerian forward Hilal Soudani, with the latter scoring in the third qualifying round win over Sheriff. The Austrian champion has not been in the competition proper since 1993-94, when they exited to eventual finalists Barcelona, and have their work cut out to return here.

Ludogorets Razgrad vs. FC Basel

The Bulgarian champion caused a shock by beating experienced Serbian champions Partizan Belgrade in the third qualifying round. Their multinational squad is one of only three to have won the domestic treble in the country’s history, and they are already enjoying a best-ever European campaign. The perennial Swiss champion represent a different level of opponent, though, having given Chelsea a fright in last year’s Europa League semifinals. Murat Yakin’s side have an excellent goalkeeper in Yann Sommer, and striker Raul Bobadilla is finally eligible for Europe.

FC Viktoria Plzen vs. Maribor

A growing name in European competition circles, Viktoria beat Napoli and ran Fenerbahce close in last season’s Europa League, exiting in the round of 16. Their success in recent years has seen them lose a raft of players to higher-profile leagues, but they will be favourites here. Having played Tottenham in last season’s Europa League and beaten 2012 Champions League quarterfinalists APOEL in the third qualifying round, Maribor are aiming for a second group-stage place, 14 years after the first. They again will look to captain and club legend Tavares, a Brazilian striker, for inspiration.

Shakhter Karagandy vs. Celtic

Amido Balde
PA PhotosCeltic will hope Amido Balde can help them through to the group stage.

Having won the Kazakh Premier League twice in a row, Shakhter surprisingly beat BATE Borisov -- conquerors of Bayern Munich in last season’s group stage -- in the second qualifying round before overcoming Albanian champions Skenderbeu in their last tie. Goalkeeper Aleksandr Mokin saved a vital penalty in the second leg against BATE and will be tough to beat. Celtic arguably finished off stronger opponents in Elfsborg in the third qualifying round, and Neil Lennon hopes his side can be clinical in front of goal here, with Amido Balde expected to step up.

Steaua Bucharest vs. Legia Warsaw

The 1986 winners still have the shadow of a UEFA match-fixing investigation hanging over them, and the club has been rocked after notorious president Gigi Becali was imprisoned. Steaua also have lost top scorer Raul Rucescu to Sevilla, but they held on to key defender Vlad Chiriches despite strong interest from Roma and Tottenham. After scraping past Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Molde on away goals, Legia are aiming to make the most of their first participation in the Champions League qualifiers in seven years. The 1996 quarterfinalists are now coached by former national team striker Jan Urban.

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