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Arsenal, Zenit and Athletic Bilbao are among the big names to confirm their names in the draw at the play-off stage after an intriguing week of Champions League football

By Kris Voakes | International Football Correspondent

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 who 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.

And 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 play-off football induces, they will be joined by a handful of sides for whom the competition has already proved to be a rollercoaster experience.

Highest among that list are Ludogorets, who reached the group round in the most dramatic scenario imaginable. Having already made all three substitutions against Steaua Bucharest, they 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 shoot-out.

And the fairy story played out to its sensational finale, with Moti saving from Paul Parvulescu and then - crucially - Cornel Rapa to send the Bulgarian champions through for a first ever Champions League group stage in the most unlikely of circumstances. 

Arsenal side secured a 17th straight season in the league format by the skin of their 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 they found themselves hanging on in the latter stages after Mathieu Debuchy’s red card 15 minutes from time. 

POT-BY-POT | Champions League participants
Real Madrid
Bayern Munich
Paris Saint-Germain
Manchester City
CSKA Moscow
Sporting CP

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 them in the draw. They 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 their clash with Napoli. Marek Hamsik’s goal had given the Italian side a flattering 2-1 aggregate lead, but they completely imploded over a 13-minute spell which saw them 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 they will be confident of progressing should they 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 their 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 are among the favourites having seen them struggle at times to see off their underwhelming Belgian opponents.

Bayer Leverkusen, on the other hand, will surely back themselves to progress once more from the group after last season’s Round of 16 exit to Paris Saint-Germain. They saw off Copenhagen – who 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 defence which looked as solid as it has in a long time when seeing off Borussia Dortmund in their opening Bundesliga fixture, they look a good bet to at least match their 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 they 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 play-off saw the Slovenians progress for the first time in 15 years at their expense.

Elsewhere, Malmo will make their 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.

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