The opening legs of the playoffs to decide the final Champions League group stage qualifiers got underway on this week, with Arsenal, Milan, Schalke and Celtic among the big clubs involved.
Arsene Wenger, feeling the heat with the transfer window soon to close, saw his side thoroughly dominant Fenerbahce in Istanbul, where Kieran Gibbs, Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud all got on the scoresheet in the second half.
Unfortunately it was far from a successful evening's work for Celtic on Tuedsay, as they left themselves a somewhat uphill battle back in Scotland's in a week's time after finding themselves stunned by Kazakhstan's Shakhter Karagandy.
Meanwhile, AC Milan found themselves in a real battle with a young and energetic PSV Eindhoven side, while there were two phenomenal goals in the contest between Lyon and Real Sociedad.
Read on for a full round-up of the week's first legs.
All statistics courtesy of UEFA.com.
Jefferson Farfan opened the scoring for Schalke against PAOK.
Miroslav Stoch’s second-half goal sent PAOK back to Greece in good spirits—the strike having helped secure a 1-1 against Schalke in Gelsenkirchen.
PAOK, who gave as good as they got in the opening exchanges, found themselves living dangerously after Stelios Kitsiou and Stoch, himself, were issued yellow cards inside the opening 17 minutes.
Shortly thereafter Schalke began to force the issue, with each of Max Meyer, Julian Draxler and Jermaine Jones having opportunities in front of goal before Jefferson Farfan opened the scoring in the 32nd minute.
Summer signing Adam Szalai refused to give up on the play after Liam Lawrence blocked his first shot, and after sliding the ball to Farfan was caught up in the celebrations as the Peru attacker slipped the ball into the back of the net at the far post.
Two minutes later Jones came close once again, and given what was to transpire he would end up ruing his miss.
In the 73rd minute, and shortly after squandering a chance from just outside the area, Stoch had PAOK back on level terms after his cut-in from the left set up a delightful, bending drive that beat Schalke goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand to the far post.
Celtic endured a disaster in Astana
The first game of the day saw Scottish champions Celtic take on Kazakhstan's Shakhter Karagandy at the Astana Arena in Astana—used because Shakhter's home ground back in Karaganda was considered not quite up to scratch.
But the more comfortable surroundings did not prove an advantage for Neil Lennon's side, as they lost 2-0 to Karagandy in a desperately disappointing display. Goals from Andrei Finonchenko and Sergei Khizhnichenko gave the home side the win, inspiring real thoughts that they could yet reach the Champions League group stages.
In truth Celtic looked better for huge swathes of the match, but were undone by some spectacularly lax defending at key moments and profligacy in front of goal as they slumped to defeat.
Honduran international Emilio Izaguirre and Scotland's Charlie Mulgrew received some stern words from teammates after allowing Finonchenko to steal in behind the both of them to turn home a 12th-minute long throw-in that had been flicked on at the near post.
The Bhoys subsequently had plenty of chances to equalise, before underwhelming debutant Virgil van Dijk lost track of Khizhnichenko in the 77th minute, as the striker—who acquitted himself well throughout—ghosted free in the box to turn home a potentially crucial second.
With the crowd at the Astana Arena cheering on the home side vociferously, Shakhter remained resolute at the back, holding on for the clean sheet and a two-goal advantage going into the second leg.
Although not fully on display in this contest, Lennon's side seemingly have more than enough quality to overcome Shakhter (who have already beaten BATE Borisov and Albania's Skenderbeu Korce to reach this stage) and progress to the group stages, but cannot afford a performance as disjointed as this one if they are to get the three-goal victory they now need in the second leg.
Mohamed Salah scored twice for Basel on Wednesday.
The most entertaining action on Wednesday was to be found in Sofia, Bulgaria, where hosts Ludogorets briefly held a 2-1 lead before eventually falling to Swiss side Basel in the second half.
Basel were quickest off the mark at Vasil Levski National Stadium. Mohamed Salah, bagged a brace on this night, got his first just 12 minutes into the proceedings when he ran onto an arching ball over the defense to beat the offside trap and blast the goal into the back of the net.
The lead lasted only 11 minutes, however. Marcelinho—the beneficiary of a delicate through-ball from Roman Bezjak—still had a lot to do upon receiving the ball but beat Basel goalkeeper Yann Sommer with a delicate chip to restore level terms.
Five minutes after the restart the hosts were ahead—Ivano Stoyanov beating Sommer after a bizarre passage of play saw Marcelinho scuff his initial effort.
But that was to be the end of Ludogorets’ scoring, as Salah equalized for Basel just shy of the hour-mark and Giovanni Sio putting in what proved to be the winner in the 64th minute after some nice buildup orchestrated by Valentin Stocker.
Junior Caicara gave Ludogorets even more work to do when he was sent off with seven minutes to play after tripping Salah in the area. Fabian Schar beat Vladislav Stoyanov to the bottom corner and Basel got out of Bulgaria with a commanding two-goal aggregate lead.
PSV Eindhoven were impressive against AC Milan
A young and vibrant PSV Eindhoven side grabbed a deserved draw against a more experienced AC Milan to give themselves every chance heading into the second leg at the San Siro.
Some undoubtedly naive defending from the home side allowed Stephan El Shaarawy to steal in totally unmarked to nod home from Ignazio Abate's cross early on, but Christian Abbiati's inability to hold Jeffrey Bruma's speculative, dipping drive allowed Tim Matavs to head home an equaliser in the second half.
In an entertaining game at PSV Stadion, the home side started brightly if somewhat openly, and they soon were punished for their adventure. Abate broke free down the right with just 15 minutes gone, and spotted El Shaarawy moving unchecked into the box to find his striker with an ideal cross.
PSV reacted well to that setback, with Adam Maher in particular looking impressive in midfield. But chances continued to be wasted—Maher perhaps going the closest—as Milan also forced PSV goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet into a number of smart saves.
On the hour mark, however, PSV got a crucial goal. Progressing unchecked to around 30 yards from goal, central defender Bruma fired a low, swerving shot that Abbiati could only palm out into the goalmouth. And it was Matavs reacting quickest, stealing in to head past the prone goalkeeper.
Both sides pressed for a second strike, but one would not be forthcoming—with Zoet bailing out his defence with a fine late stop from substitute Andrea Poli. PSV edged the shots statistic 19 to 14, but know they will need to produce an even better performance in the second leg if they are to progress. AC Milan, however, will know they are in a real tie.
Marko Stankovic scored Austria Wien's second goal away to Dinamo Zagreb.
Dinamo Zagreb have an uphill battle to fight after going down 2-0 at home to Austria Wien on Wednesday.
A cagey first half that ended with a handful of Dinamo chances quickly turned into a chippy affair after the restart, with Dinamo’s Josip Pivaric going into the book in the 48th minute and Austria’s Florian Mader joining him there in the 64th.
But only four minutes later the guests were ahead—Marin Leovac beating Dinamo goalkeeper Oliver Zelenika with a low shot after accepting a pass from Tomas Jun.
Three minutes later the referee risked losing control of the match when Ante Rukavina flew into Kaja Rogulj with a high boot, studs up. He was issued a straight red card and Dinamo’s assignment became that much more difficult.
Austria quickly took advantage of their numerical superiority. With 15 minutes left on the clock Marko Stankovic beat Zelenika with a venomous shot from distance to round out the scoring.
A fine goal from Antonie Griezmann set Real Sociedad on their way
Two fine, fine goals enabled Real Sociedad to pick up an impressive 2-0 away win against Lyon at Stade Gerland.
Antoine Griezmann—a Lyon fan as a child—opened the scoring with a spectacular overhead kick, before team-mate Haris Seferovic produced something similarly impressive to leave the Spanish side in the driving seat after the first half of the tie.
Lyon edged the possession and shots (albeit 12 to 11) but were undone by two fabulous individual efforts. Griezmann produced the first after just 17 minutes, arriving in the box to meet Carlos Vela's deep cross in mid-air and thunder it beyond Lyon's Anthony Lopes.
Then, in the second half, 21-year-old Seferovic got in on the act himself, unleashing a left-footed volley from fully 30 yards that beat Lopes inside his near post to seal victory in the leg and, possibly, progression from the tie.
Jakub Kosecki scored the equalizer for Legia Warsaw in Romania.
This tie is finally balanced after a first leg that saw Legia Warsaw fight back from a first-half deficit in the Romanian capital.
Six yellow cards were handed out by referee Nicola Rizzoli at Arena Nationala, but Legia won’t have been too disappointed with either the result or the physical nature of the contest given the away goal they’ll be taking back to Poland.
Steaua forward Federico Piovaccari opened the scoring in the 34th minute when he did ever so well to control a difficult ball before lifting it over on-rushing goalkeeper Dusan Kuciak, but Legia got the away goal they needed just eight minutes after the restart when Jakub Kosecki got on the end of Miroslav Radovic’s cross and beat Ciprian Tatarusanu with his low shot.
Roman Shirokov scored twice for Zenit
Zenit St Petersburg will be very confident of their progression to the group stages after they picked up a valuable 4-1 away win against Portugal's Pacos de Ferreira.
An unlikely brace from Roman Shirokov got much of the job done for Zenit, before Augusto Andre Leao's 58th minute strike for the home side looked like giving Pacos at least a glimmer of hope.
However, an unfortunate own goal from Degra and Shirokov's third strike means Zenit should have few difficult moments in next week's second leg.
Pacos de Ferreira edged proceedings for much of the contest, but Zenit showed a greater thrust in front of goal. It was Shirokov who broke the deadlock just before the half-hour mark, the defensive midfielder bursting into the box to meet Danny's cross and turn it home.
Pacos responded just before the hour-mark through Leao, after a corner broke to the Brazilian in the box and he volleyed beyond Zenit goalkeeper Yuri Lodygin.
Their delight would be short-lived, however, as Shirokov popped up two minutes later; again finding himself on the end of Danny's delivery at the far post to prod home from a matter of yards. Then, in the dying phase of the match, Pacos saw Aleksander Kerzhakov's free-kick crash off the underside of the crossbar and in off the back of goalkeeper Degra, a stroke of bad luck that heightened the task they now face.
Pacos had 16 shots to Zenit's 14 over the course of the contest, but it was Shirokov who scored again in injury time—completing his hat-trick and making Zenit the overwhelming favourites to progress after the second leg next Wednesday.
Viktoria Plzen will take a healthy advantage to Portugal
Czech side Viktoria Plzen achieved what they needed to on Tuesday, a 3-1 home win giving them a healthy advantage ahead of the second leg in Slovenia. However, NK Maribor will retain hope of progression thanks to Ales Mejac's second half goal.
Plzen had goals from Marian Cisovsky and Vladimir Darida either side of half-time—but it is Roman Duris' finish, just a minute before the end of normal time, that tipped the balance of the tie further in their favour.
Plzen—who only had 46% of the possession in the contest—went ahead thanks to Cisovsky, who reacted quickest to prod home Darida's cross-cum-shot. Darida then made the score 2-0, meeting Jan Kovarik's delivery inside the six-yard box.
Then came Mejac's chance to shine, the defender scoring the goal of the game with a sweetly hit right-foot volley that dipped over the goalkeeper and into the back of the net.
That strike left the tie evenly poised, at least until Duris showed composure in front of goal to turn home with his left foot after good work from Frantisek Rajtoral.
Maribor, who would otherwise have had every reason to feel confident of overcoming a single-goal deficit, now know they must win 2-0 on home soil if they are to reach the lucrative group stages.
Olivier Giroud successfully converted his penalty against Fenerbahce.
After going on the offensive regarding his performance in the transfer market, Arsene Wenger got a stellar performance out of his Arsenal side in Istanbul.
Tied to Turkish giants Fenerbachce in the Playoff round of the Champions League, Arsenal picked up a 2-0 win and will be in good shape to advance to the Group Stage when they return to North London for the return match next Tuesday.
After a scoreless first half in which Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud came close for the guests, Arsenal took the lead just six minutes after the restart when Theo Walcott, having accepted Aaron Ramsey’s cultured reverse, played the ball across the face of goal for Gibbs to fire into the roof of the net.
Fourteen minutes later Ramsey had his own name on the scoresheet—the midfielder beating Fenerbahce goalkeeper Volkan Demirel with a hard, low shot after receiving a pass from Jack Wilshere.
Giroud rounded out the scoring from the penalty spot in the 77th minute after Michal Kadlec’s foul on Walcott.