The 2014 Champions League play-off draw presented an array of enticing fixtures, including Arsenal's two-legged showdown with Besiktas and Napoli's tough test against Athletic Bilbao.
Representatives from each of the 20 clubs hoping to fill the group stage's final 10 spots descended upon UEFA's headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, to face their fate.
As ever, it's the seeded teams—who progressed without winning their national championship—that appear to have the upper hand. All first-leg ties will take place on Aug. 19 and 20, while second-leg fixtures go ahead on Aug. 26 and 27.
Here is the full draw:
|Maribor (SVN)||vs.||Celtic (SCO)||Aug. 20||Aug. 26|
|Red Bull Salzburg (AUS)||vs.||Malmo (SWE)||Aug. 19||Aug. 27|
|Aalborg (DEN)||vs.||Apoel FC (CYP)||Aug. 20||Aug. 26|
|Steaua Bucharest (ROU)||vs.||Ludogorets Razgrad (BUL)||Aug. 19||Aug. 27|
|Slovan Bratislava (SVK)||vs.||BATE Borisov (BLR)||Aug. 20||Aug. 26|
|Besiktas (TUR)||vs,||Arsenal (ENG)||Aug. 19||Aug. 27|
|Standard Liege (BEL)||vs,||Zenit Saint Petersburg (RUS)||Aug. 20||Aug. 26|
|FC Copenhagen (DEN)||vs,||Bayer Leverkusen (GER)||Aug. 19||Aug. 27|
|Lille (FRA)||vs,||Porto (POR)||Aug. 20||Aug. 26|
|Napoli (ITA)||vs,||Athletic Bilbao (ESP)||Aug. 19||Aug. 27|
Arsenal were always going to be favourites heading into the draw but will be comfortable with coming up against Besiktas.
Arsene Wenger's men possess decent calibre in Europe's elite competition despite never winning the trophy. One drawback may be the long-distance journey, as noted by Jeremy Wilson of The Telegraph:
Wenger really would not have wanted Besiktas. Easier in theory than Bilbao but he is very very conscious of travelling distances— Jeremy Wilson (@JWTelegraph) August 8, 2014
The arrival of Alexis Sanchez could spark the north London side into life, especially considering his busy attacking play will be surrounded by the creative presence of Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla. The former is looking forward to beginning Arsenal's next stint into the continent:
Arsenal are familiar with Turkish opposition—demolishing Fenerbahce 5-0 at this stage last season—and will be more than confident of taking the sting out of the tie with a memorable performance during their opening away leg.
New Besiktas signing Demba Ba will hope to dent Arsenal's progression once more, having previously scored against the side during his spell in the Premier League.
Staying with British representation, Celtic are among the luckier teams to have been included in the draw. The Scottish side was reinstated due to previous opponents Legia Warsaw fielding an ineligible player in their qualifying match for the play-off, as reported by Gavin McCafferty of The Independent.
Legia thrashed the Hoops 6-1 on aggregate but fielded the unregistered Bartosz Bereszynski for less than five minutes in the second leg, a mishap which led UEFA to implementing an instant forfeit. Celtic will now hope to capitalise on their rejuvenated chances with strong performances against Maribor. Vast improvements will be needed, however.
Porto will be aiming to utilise the power of their new signings to advance beyond Lille. Both are well-drilled regulars in the competition and won't want to miss out. The Portuguese side can take heart from signing Cristian Tello, Yacine Brahimi, Bruno Martins Indi and Casemiro, all of whom arrive with a point to prove.
Keeping onto Juan Quintero will also offer Porto a boost, per Jamie Anderson of the Daily Express.
Which team received the toughest draw?
Napoli will certainly be disappointed to face Bilbao. The Basque club has grown into European fixtures across previous seasons and offer a cauldron-like atmosphere at the San Mames Stadium. Ernesto Valverde's team is dealing with the loss of Ander Herrera but possesses enough quality through its ranks to challenge Rafa Benitez's attacking team.
Should Athletic grab an away goal or two in the first leg, things could get extremely tasty.
A place in the Champions League proper can make a major difference to any club—with around £70 million on offer to the winners, per ESPN—meaning qualification will help shape the future prospects of each side engaging in the play-offs.