The 2014-15 Champions League season ramps up its intensity on Friday, when this year's play-off draw is made to decide the final selection of teams heading into the group stage.
Arsenal, Porto and Bayer Leverkusen are among the 20 teams fighting for 10 places in the group stage of Europe's elite competition, which is made up of 32 sides in total. Here's the basic details to ensure you stay right up to date with the latest developments:
Where: UEFA headquarters, Nyon, Switzerland.
When: Friday, Aug. 8, 11 a.m. BST/6 a.m. ET
Watch: Eurosport 11 a.m. GMT/6 a.m. ET
|Arsenal (ENG)||Athletic Bilbao (ESP)|
|Porto (POR)||Lille (FRA)|
|Zenit Saint Petersburg (RUS)||FC Copenhagen (DEN)|
|Bayer Leverkusen (GER)||Standard Liege (BEL)|
|Napoli (ITA)||Besiktas (TUR)|
|Red Bull Salzburg (AUS)||Maribor (SVN)|
|Steaua Bucharest (ROU)||Ludogorets Razgrad (BUL)|
|Apoel FC (CYP)||Slovan Bratislava (SVK)|
|BATE Borisov (BLR)||Malmo (SWE)|
|Celtic (SCO)||Aalborg (DEN)|
As highlighted above, this is not a draw in which all teams can face each other. UEFA has split teams into two groups: Those who qualified through finishing a certain position in a so-called "top" league, and those who won the national championship in a country that receives lesser weighting for the tournament.
Which of the top seeded sides are least likely to make the group stage?
For example, Arsenal finished fourth in the Premier League and must qualify through the league route due to Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea taking England's three automatic qualifying spots. They cannot face the likes of Red Bull Salzburg, who topped Austria's division but don't get an automatic pass into the group stage due to the nation only having a maximum of one spot in the tournament.
The five seeded teams from each section will be drawn against a non-seeded team who qualified through the same route. This means Arsenal can face Athletic Bilbao, Lille, FC Copenhagen, Standard Liege or Besiktas, but have escaped taking on the likes of Porto due to their seeding.
This type of draw simultaneously allows the best teams an advantage when qualifying for the group stage—those seeded through the league route generally make it—while five lesser-known sides will also receive entry after winning their local division.
It's worth noting Celtic were reinstated into the draw just an hour before it was due to take place, reported by the competition's official Twitter account:
Legia have been sanctioned for fielding an ineligible player, meaning Celtic take their place in today's #UCLdraw.— Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) August 8, 2014
Despite beating the Scottish champions 6-1 across two legs, Legia Warsaw's decision to field unregistered player Bartosz Bereszynski forces them to forfeit, reported by Gavin McCafferty of The Independent. As such, Celtic head into the seeded champions pot, with Ludogorets moving into the unseeded section.
All first-leg ties will take place on Aug. 19/20, while second-leg fixtures go ahead on Aug. 26/27.
Teams to Watch
Simply put, it would be a major surprise to see Arsene Wenger's men fail to make it beyond this stage. The Gunners have qualified for the last 14 group-stage draws in a row and hammered Fenerbahce 5-0 across two legs in last year's playoffs, before being knocked out at the round-of-16 stage after losing to Bayern Munich.
Wenger has strengthened his side considerably across the summer. Alexis Sanchez, Mathieu Debuchy, David Ospina and Calum Chambers could all make their European debut for the side who will expect to navigate any of their potential hurdles in professional style.
The North Londoners could add further stars by this point and are currently linked to the likes of Real Madrid's Sami Khedira, reported by Ben Jefferson of the Express.
BeIN Sports' Tancredi Palmeri suggests the German midfielder may be out of reach for Wenger, however:
Many asking regarding deal between Arsenal and Khedira. As far as I know it is off since 10 days ago when Khedira asked 8m€ wages off taxes— Tancredi Palmeri (@tancredipalmeri) August 6, 2014
Arsenal will bring a sense of style to the competition no matter who they line up with. We can expect fast-paced, passing football with an emphasis on controlling possession ahead of the halfway line. Olivier Giroud will likely act as the focal point for attack, with incisive stars such as Sanchez and Mesut Ozil cutting through the opposition's first line of defence.
The Liga Sagres weighting ensures only the winner qualifies outright for this competition. Benfica enjoy an automatic run into the main stage this year, leaving Julen Lopetegui's Porto with the unwanted playoff task.
Porto have waded through a typical summer by their standards. The club offset the sales of important players such as Juan Iturbe and Fernando with some impressive signings. Cristian Tello's loan deal from Barcelona may be one of preseason's shrewdest moves, while the acquisition of Yacine Brahimi from Granada will provide the team with added spark just behind striker Jackson Martinez.
Bruno Martins Indi also arrives from Feyenoord to plug the gap potentially left by Eliaquim Mangala, with his move to Manchester City expected imminently, per David Maddock of the Mirror. Adrian Lopez offers the side a thoughtful striking alternative from Atletico Madrid, while Casemiro's loan deal from Real Madrid should aid the midfield's sense of fight now Fernando has exited.
This will be the new-look Porto's first opportunity to impress on the big stage under Lopetegui. The club are used to being in a state of perpetual transition due to the Portuguese clubs' position as feeders for richer teams, and as ever, it's interesting to see how they will cope.
There is no room for slip-ups at this stage. Failing to qualify could see teams lose between £30-£70 million in revenue, per ESPN. It would be a major disaster for the likes of Arsenal and Porto, who remain ever-presents in Europe's toughest club competition, even if it means qualifying through the playoffs.
While an exercise of expectation for some, the lesser-known champions will want to capitalise on a major opportunity. Teams including Apoel, Steaua Bucharest and BATE Borisov have all benefited from making it into the Champions League across previous years, despite possessing smaller followings and expectations than many of the continent's elite.
With a duo of top performances during the final pre-group stage test, these sides can rub shoulders with the best once more.