The UEFA Champions League roars back into action Tuesday and Wednesday across the FOX family with the play-off round. Ten spots in the group stage are up for grabs, with the likes of Napoli, Bayer Leverkusen and Glasgow Celtic fighting for a berth.
Tuesday’s marquee match (live on FOX Sports 1, 2 PM ET) sees Arsenal travel to Turkey for the second year in a row for a meeting with Besiktas and former Newcastle and Chelsea striker Demba Ba. It is a critical game for Londoners, and one that on Saturday Arsene Wenger said they had to win "at all costs."
"We’re desperate to go through. We want to play in the Champions League [and] we know how big these games are," said Wenger in the aftermath of his side’s 2-1 win over Crystal Palace to open up their season. He is not wrong: Arsenal’s season in many ways rests on the lucre they can amass in Europe, and Wenger has been taunted for years for insisting that a fourth place finish in the Prem is as good as any.
Arsenal have never lost a match in regulation to a Turkish side (they were beaten on kicks in the 2000 UEFA Cup final, however, by Galatasaray) and Besiktas’ record against English sides isn’t exactly great. Arsenal have also never failed to progress out of the playoffs, and look much stronger on paper than Besiktas. However, the Turks aren’t shabby and have roared through their last 12 UEFA games unbeaten at home, racking up the score along the way. Besiktas took out Feyenoord 5-2 to get here with Ba scoring a hat-trick in his first appearance.
Ba’s presence in the game adds some frisson to what otherwise might be a walkover. Arsenal are the better side at nearly every position, but Ba, a one-time Arsenal target, might remind the Gunners they are missing both a pure defensive midfielder in the Patrick Vieira mold, and an out-and-out striker. They also remain suspect in the back, as Crystal Palace showed on the weekend in the season opener.
Arsenal will be missing Kieran Gibbs, who tweaked his hamstring in that 2-1 win at the Emirates. Laurent Koscielny practiced in Istanbul on Monday but is also a doubt with a recurrence of an Achilles’ injury. Mesut Ozil and Lukas Podolski remain on leave, meaning aside from Gibbs, there should be little change from the roster Arsenal deployed Saturday.
In the other marquee game of the day, Napoli faces Athletic. Rafa Benitez has historic ties to the Basque team – he once coached their neighbors, Osasuna - and has yet to win a game at Bilbao. But Napoli, a team full of veteran stars that includes Gonzalo Higuain, Goran Pandev and Marek Hamsik, should be more than a match for Athletic. Keep an eye on winger Iker Muniain, a star with Spain’s U-21s who has nonetheless failed to fulfill his potential with the full national side.
Wednesday’s games see Porto, Zenit St. Petersburg and Celtic take the stage - and that game in Slovenia, against tiny NK Maribor is intriguing but for off-field reasons.
The Scots were not even supposed to be here after they were thumped roundly by Legia Warsaw in the previous round, but a late substitution by the Poles in the second leg saw them field an ineligible player â UEFA subsequently awarded the Scots a 3-0 forfeit. That took them through on the away goals rule and outraged Legia, but the expulsion has been let stand. Whether or not the Scots can show anything at all in Slovenia is an open question, but the folks in Warsaw will surely be wondering what might have happened had they not made such a costly mistake.