Champions League Roundup: Playoff 1st Legs
The UEFA Champions League is back in full force.
After a summer of seemingly endless amounts of qualifying, the big-name clubs are finally in action.
The first legs of the playoff round (final qualifying round before the group stages) took place this past Tuesday and Wednesday across Europe. It was a miserable week for the home teams at this stage; they took only two victories out of 10 matches during the playoff round.
Let's take a look back at this week's matches and some predictions for the return legs.
Shakhter Karagandy vs. Celtic
By far the most surprising result of the tournament thus far, Kazakh champions Shakhter Karagandy upset Celtic by a score of two goals to nil.
If you have never heard of Shakhter Karagandy, you're not alone. Normally, minnows from low-ranked nations like Kazakhstan do not progress this far. Shakhter Karagandy are hoping to become the first Kazakh club to reach the Champions League group stage.
But the job is far from finished.
Celtic will be disappointed with this result since they were favorites when the draw was made last month. Still, Celtic will be massive favorites in the return leg to Parkhead.
After defeating FC Barcelona 2-1 at home last season in the Champions League group stage, it would be unwise to believe this tie was over.
Second-Leg Prediction: Celtic 3-1 Shakhter Karagandy (Shakhter Karagandy advances 3-3* on away goal rule.)
Lyon vs. Real Sociedad
Real Sociedad demonstrated the massive gap in skill between La Liga (Spain) and Ligue 1 (France).
The fourth-place finishers from the 2012-13 La Liga campaign scored a pair of unbelievable goals on the road against a formidable Lyon squad. The French side are perennial Champions League group stage participants, but progression to the next round appears bleak.
Sociedad take a two-goal advantage back to the Spanish Basque Country, where they only lost two matches last season in La Liga.
Second-Leg Prediction: Real Sociedad 2-1 Lyon (Real Sociedad advance 4-1 on aggregate.)
Pacos vs. Zenit St. Petersburg
The most overwhelming scoreline of this week came in this tie. Russian champions Zenit St. Petersburg thrashed Portuguese side Pacos de Ferreira at the Estadio do Dragao, home of FC Porto.
This tie is essentially over; four away goals mean Pacos will have to score four in Russia and hope Zenit do not score any more goals.
Pacos surprisingly finished third in last season's Portuguese Liga ahead of Sporting Braga.
Pacos was the underdog from all angles. In fact, their overall team's salary and other expenses aren't even a third of Zenit star Hulk's annual gross wage of €10 million.
Second-Leg Prediction: Zenit 2-0 Pacos (Zenit advance 6-1 on aggregate)
PSV Eindhoven vs. AC Milan
In arguably the best matchup of these Champions League playoffs, the two former European champions battled to a 1-1 draw in Holland.
Milan dominated the majority of the match, taking a 1-0 lead off a Stephan El Shaarawy headed goal.
PSV salvaged a draw when Tim Matavz rebounded a fumbled save from Milan's keeper.
While Milan have the advantage heading to the San Siro, their boss Massimiliano Allegri was frustrated with his side's lack of scoring prowess, according to Shane Callaghan of Goal.com. Regardless, the draw sets up a mouth-watering encounter next Wednesday in Italy.
Second-Leg Prediction: AC Milan 3-1 PSV (AC Milan advance 4-2 on aggregate.)
Viktoria Plzen vs. Maribor
Any writer who tells you he is familiar with either of these clubs is probably lying.
Therefore, I will stick to the basics.
Czech champions Viktoria Plzen defeated Slovenian champions Maribor 3-1 in the Czech Republic on Tuesday. A Michal Duris goal in the 90th minute put the Czech side in firm control of their Champions League fate.
However, Maribor scored a valuable away goal, which means a 2-0 victory at home would send them through.
Second-Leg Prediction: Maribor 0-0 Viktoria Plzen (Viktoria Plzen advance 3-1 on aggregate.)
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Austria Vienna
Austria Wien were one of the many successful away sides this week.
The Vienna-based club surprisingly defeated Croatian powerhouse Dinamo Zagreb 2-0 away from home.
Austria Wien are no strangers to the European Cup having participated on 19 occasions. Expect the Austrians to defend their lead in the return leg at home, although Dinamo Zagreb have the talent to turn a tie around very quickly.
Second-Leg Prediction: Austria Wien 1-2 Dinamo Zagreb (Austria Wien advance 3-2 on aggregate.)
Fenerbahce vs. Arsenal
While Fenerbahce may be in an appeal process to remain in European Cup contention, Arsenal made sure that the verdict will make no impact.
Despite criticisms of manager Arsene Wenger for a lack of summer signings and a 3-1 loss at home to Aston Villa on the opening day of the Premier League season, Arsenal answered with three second-half goals in Istanbul.
Arsenal were the superior side in all aspects of this match.
The Gunners were not content on returning home with any work to do. Instead they essentially guaranteed a spot in the next round after the first leg.
On the same day when Arsenal learned that star winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would miss three months with a stretched ligament, Wenger and his men put his critics to rest—for now.
Second-Leg Prediction: Arsenal 2-1 Fenerbahce (Arsenal advance 5-1 on aggregate.)
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Basel
Swiss champions FC Basel were heavy favorites to upend Bulgarian side Ludogorets Razgrad.
Basel recorded one of the better results this week with a 4-2 victory in Sofia. The match was far from simple though, as the Bulgarian side led 2-1 shortly after halftime. Basel equalized in the 59th minute with a goal from Mohamed Salah and took the lead five minutes later.
Fabian Schar scored from the penalty spot in the 84th minute to give Basel a comfortable lead going into the deciding match.
Second-Leg Prediction: Basel 4-1 (Basel advances 8-3 on aggregate.)
Schalke vs. PAOK
One of the more surprising results of this week was a draw in Gelsenkirchen.
Schalke, who are perennial Champions League knockout round participants, were annoyed by a stingy PAOK side. The Greeks cancelled out Jefferson Farfan's first-half goal with a Miroslav Stoch goal in the second half.
PAOK hold a slight edge in next week's return leg with a precious away goal,, but Schalke are probably overall favorites.
Schalke obviously have quality, finishing fourth in a tough German Bundesliga last year.
Second-Leg Prediction: PAOK 0-2 Schalke (Schalke advances 3-1 on aggregate.)
Steaua Bucuresti vs. Legia Warszawa
Not much to report from this one. Two minnows of European football matched up to a 1-1 draw.
Legia have the advantage heading back to Poland with that vital away goal.
Steaua were clear favorites to advance to the group stage, but Legia prove that Polish football has developed mightily.
Second-Leg Prediction: Legia 1-1 Steaua (Legia advances 2-2* via penalty kicks.)