Champions League

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Complications engulf Arsenal draw

UEFA Champions League: Arsenal, Fenerbahce pair in fourth round playoff.
UEFA Champions League: Arsenal, Fenerbahce pair in fourth round playoff.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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It’s been just 76 days since Bayern Munich lifted the 2012-13 UEFA Champions League trophy by beating archrivals Borussia Dortmund in a classic final at Wembley Stadium in London. But with Friday’s playoff round draw for the 2013-14 edition completed, this year’s tournament is already starting in earnest.

Qualifying has been under way since July 2 – meaning the UEFA Champions League off-season is now a mere 37 days. In the first three rounds, 49 entrants from Europe’s lower-ranked competitions (according to a coefficient system based on continental performance of all clubs from your country in the previous five year) were whittled down to 15. They were joined in the bowls containing the little drawing balls by three fourth-placed teams from the top-three leagues (England, Spain and Germany) and third-placed teams from the fourth (Italy) and fifth-best (Portugal) leagues.

The bigger names were drawn in the so-called League Route, made up of teams who didn’t win their leagues but play in competitions whose placement in the rankings affords them a chance to qualify regardless. They could only draw each other, between five seeded and five unseeded teams.

In order, Olympique Lyonnais drew Real Sociedad; Schalke 04 drew Metalist Kharkiv; Pacos de Ferreira drew Zenit St. Petersburg; PSV Eindhoven drew AC Milan; and Fenerbahce drew Arsenal.

In the Champions Route, made up only of domestic champions from lower-ranked leagues, Dinamo Zagreb drew Austrian Wien; Ludogorets Razgrad drew FC Basel; Viktoria Plzen drew Maribor; Shakhter Karagandy drew Celtic; and Steaua Bucharest drew Legia Warsaw.

First legs will take place on Aug. 20 and 21 and the return games will be played on Aug. 27 and 28. On Aug. 29, the ten winners will be drawn into the group stage along with the 22 clubs that qualified directly by virtue of their league placement last season.

The draw, which was considerably and mercifully less glitzy and fussy as those for the group stage and subsequent knockout rounds, for the most part kept the big names apart. Still, Arsenal faces a formidable foe in Fenerbahce and its rabid home support. That matchup, however, is surrounded by controversy. UEFA has ruled that Fenerbahce fixed games to win their league in 2011, and the disciplinary proceedings aren’t yet complete. The Turkish club is awaiting a verdict on an appeal against its two-year ban from European competitions in the Court of Arbitration for Sport. So while proceedings are ongoing, they can keep playing.

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Interestingly, the appeal is set to be heard after the second leg which means Fenerbahce could beat Arsenal and then be be thrown out of the tournament. Will the Gunners take their place in the group stage or will it go to Bursaspor, who finished behind Fener in the Turkish League? That question remains unanswered. 

Among the other appetizing matches made by the hands of UEFA officials whirling and pairing up the balls, Lyon and Sociedad will make for an intriguing affair. Both sport a good deal of young attacking flair, including Mexico’s Carlos Vela for the Spaniards.

PSV and AC Milan will re-litigate their 2004-05 semifinal, when the Rossoneri took the 3-3 aggregate tie on away goals. Both are in rebuilding mode after shedding a great deal of experience in the last year or two. And both have re-made themselves around tantalizing talent up front – Mario Balotelli, Stephan El Shaarawy and Mbaye Niang for Milan; Adam Maher, Georginio Wijnaldum and Luciano Narsingh for PSV.

Last year’s Cinderella story Celtic faces this year’s early favorite for that distinction. They’ll do battle with Shakhter Karagandy from Kazakhstan, who are on the verge of making the main competition of a European tournament for the first time ever, after winning the Kazakhstan Premier League for the past two seasons – their only two wins. Shakhter have already slogged through two matchups, beating out the Belarusian Champions League regular BATE Borisov in the second qualifying round.

Schalke 04 and Zenit St. Petersburg, well-moneyed clubs with a good track record in this competition, will expect to dispatch Metalist Kharkiv and Pacos de Ferreira, respectively. The latter, from Portugal and nicknamed the Beavers, are into the tournament for the first time in their existence. Kharkiv, as is the wont of many Eastern European clubs, boasts seven Brazilian players – in addition to seven Argentineans. But they’ll probably lack the ability to upset Schalke and U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones.

In the remaining matchups, FC Basel is the favorite against Ludogorets Razgrad. Dinamo Zagred-Austria Wien, Viktoria Plzen-Maribor and Steaua Bucharest-Legia Warsaw are toss-ups.

The UEFA Champions League group stage kicks off on Sept. 17. The final will take place in Lisbon’s Estadio Da Luz on May 24, 2014. All games will be available on the FOX family of networks.
 

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