While the Champions League is now well underway, it never feels as though the tournament really begins until the playoff stage, where obscure champions or teams from the bigger leagues that barely qualified are given the chance to fight their way into the high-profile group stage.
With 22 teams awaiting them, 20 teams—separated into two separate groupings—will battle for the right to join the group stage.
But first, of course, we need the draw to see which teams will play to move on. Let's break down the playoff draw.
When: Friday, August 9 at 5:45 a.m. ET (10:45 a.m. BST)
Where: Nyon, Switzerland
The playoff round of the Champions League is split into two groups. There is the League Route, which is comprised of those teams that qualified into this competition through league play, with five teams— Arsenal, AC Milan, Schalke 04, Real Sociedad and Pacos de Ferreira—qualifying directly for the playoff round.
Then there is the Champions Route, those teams that won their respective leagues and have qualified for this round by winning in previous rounds over other champions. All 10 teams in this section advanced through the third qualifying round.
Based on coefficients, the teams in each Route are then broken into two groups and put into two pots, where they will be drawn against a team from the other pot. So, for instance, Arsenal cannot play AC Milan, Schalke 04, Zenit St. Petersburg or Olympique Lyonnais, since, based on coefficients, those teams are in the same pot as Arsenal.
The teams that draw together will play a home-and-away playoff round, and the 10 winners will join the 22 automatic qualifiers in the Champions League group stage.
There is potential for controversy, however, as both Fenerbahce and Metalist Kharkiv could be found ineligible for the tournament. From the Associated Press (via the Boston Herald):
Milan and Arsenal are seeded in the 10-team non-champions section where potential opponents include Fenerbahce and Metalist Kharkiv—both threatened with expulsion by UEFA because club officials are implicated in match-fixing cases.
Metalist faces a UEFA disciplinary panel next Tuesday, one week before first-leg matches begin, but could appeal any ruling at the Court of Arbitration for Sport and continue to play.
Fenerbahce is already heading to CAS. The Turkish club awaits a hearing date to appeal against a two-year ban from UEFA competitions. A verdict is expected before the Aug. 29 group-stage draw in Monaco.
If they ultimately lose their respective appeals, that could complicate the Champions League proceedings quite dramatically.
Arsenal, AC Milan, Schalke 04, Zenit St. Petersburg, Olympique Lyonnais
PSV Eindhoven, Metalist Kharkiv, Fenerbahce, Real Sociedad, Pacos de Ferreira
FC Basel, Celtic, Steaua Bucureşti, Viktoria Plzen, Dinamo Zagreb
Austria Wien, Legia Warszawa, Maribor, Ludogorets Razgrad, Shakhter Karagandy
While it's hard to make full predictions until the actual draw is settled, a few things seem clear. Arsenal, AC Milan and Schalke should all advance. Same for Celtic and FC Basel, which advanced to the semifinals of the Europa Cup last year.
Zenit St. Petersburg and Lyon are both talented teams, but potential matchups against PSV Eindhoven or Real Sociedad could be troublesome.
In general, expect mostly chalk to hold when the draw comes out. The big teams should move on, and though there will surely be an upset or two, it's hard to imagine any earth-shattering shockers.