Arsenal, Zenit and Athletic Bilbao are among the big names to confirm their place in the draw at the playoff stage after an intriguing week of Champions League football.
The twists and turns have already been dramatic to say the least, and the Champions League has still yet to begin in many people’s eyes.
Arsenal, Athletic Bilbao and Zenit St Petersburg are among the sides which have been forced to battle their way through to the group stage, with the right to attend Thursday evening’s group stage draw having only been booked at the last moment in some cases.
While Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester City et al will rock up to the ceremony at Monte Carlo without the extra grey hairs that playoff football induces, they will be joined by a handful of sides for which the competition has already proved to be a rollercoaster experience.
Highest among that list is Ludogorets, which reached the group round in the most dramatic scenario imaginable. Having already made all three substitutions against Steaua Bucharest, the club had goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov sent off in the dying moments of extra time. That forced defender Cosmin Moti to take over between the sticks for the penalty shootout.
MORE: Alex Morgan upset at 159-degree temps | Transfer photos
The story played out to its sensational finale, with Moti saving from Paul Parvulescu and then - crucially - Cornel Rapa to send the Bulgarian champion through for a first ever Champions League group stage in the most unlikely of circumstances.
Arsenal's side secured a 17th straight season in the league format by the skin of its teeth. Alexis Sanchez grabbed the only goal of the entire tie in first-half injury time of Wednesday’s second leg against Besiktas at the Emirates Stadium, but the club found itself hanging on in the latter stages after Mathieu Debuchy’s red card 15 minutes from time.
|POT-BY-POT | Champions League participants
Arsene Wenger will no doubt be confident that his side can progress to make a now customary visit to the last 16, with a seeding in Pot 1 awaiting the team in the draw. The Gunners will, however, have to overcome the loss of injured striker Olivier Giroud during much of the group stage.
Athletic looked to be heading out of the competition with half an hour left of the clash with Napoli. Marek Hamsik’s goal had given the Italian side a flattering 2-1 aggregate lead, but the club completely imploded over a 13-minute spell which saw it concede three times.
One of the goals, a second on the night for Aritz Aduriz, came from an embarrassing mix-up between goalkeeper Rafael and defender Raul Albiol that would not have looked out of place in a YouTube collection of the world’s greatest footballing cock-ups.
That costly error helped to qualify Athletic for Pot 3, from which it will be confident of progressing should it get the luck of the draw and be picked out against one of Basel and Zenit. The Russians reached the group stage courtesy of two victories over Standard Liege, with Hulk grabbing two goals in the 3-0 second-leg win at the Petrovsky Stadium.
While the results were the bottom line for Andre Villas-Boas’ men, the Portuguese coach will not be kidding himself that his side is among the favorites having seen it struggle at times to see off its underwhelming Belgian opponent.
Bayer Leverkusen, on the other hand, will surely back itself to progress once more from the group after last season’s Round of 16 exit to Paris Saint-Germain. The club saw off Copenhagen – which last year beat Galatasaray and drew with Juventus – with a simple 4-0 win on Wednesday following a 3-2 away-leg win.
What’s more, with a promising forward line which boasts the likes of Stefan Kiessling, Karim Bellarabi, Son Heung-Min and Hakan Calhanoglu, and a defense which looked as solid as it has in a long time when seeing off Borussia Dortmund in the opening Bundesliga fixture, the club looks a good bet to at least match its feats of last term.
The plot thickened away from the pitch too during the qualifying stage, with Legia Warsaw’s 6-1 aggregate win over Celtic being struck out after the club fielding an ineligible late substitute in the second-leg win in Glasgow. It was to be only a temporary reprieve for Ronny Deila’s side though, as a loss to Maribor in the playoff saw the Slovenians progress for the first time in 15 years at Celtic's expense.
Elsewhere, Malmo will make its Champions League bow after seeing off Red Bull Salzburg, and Apoel and BATE Borisov are also among the teams in what looks – Roma apart – like a fairly weak Pot 4. For many, the greatest hope now is that they get a blockbuster draw against one of the continent’s very best teams.
Europe’s attention now turns to the principality for Thursday’s ceremony, with one-third of the participants already having stories to tell about what the 2014-15 edition of the Champions League can offer.
The fun has only just begun.Follow Kris Voakes on