If you weren’t paying attention to the final round of the Champions League playoffs, you missed some exciting and intriguing action. Teams that were expected to go through didn’t, others showcased pure class and big names struggled to stave off pesky opponents.
But, for the ten teams that advanced through the playoff rounds the only thing that mattered was getting to Thursday’s group stage draw and seeing where the ping pong balls tell them they are going.
So, ahead of the UEFA Champions League group stage draw, we thought it apropos to give you a look at the five teams most qualified to do some damage over the next few months.
Here are those teams (in order):
5. Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia)
HULK SMASH…get used to hearing that out of Eric Wynalda every time Zenit’s name is mentioned. While the Brazilian forward is clearly the star, this side is much more than just Hulk. Let’s not forget that Zenit’s defense also pitched a two-legged shut out over Belgium’s most consistent club team over the past decade. Oh and with a draw in to pot two of Thursday’s group stage draw things are going to be in their favor. What I am worried about is this team getting stuck in a really bad draw because it is a lone representative from it’s country and that makes it an easy target for a group of death-like draw on Thursday.
4. Arsenal FC (England)
I’m not sure what to make of the two legs that took place between Arsenal and Besiktas. On the one hand, it may have been the most difficult opponent possible for an English team, as traveling to Turkey never seems to end well. On the other hand, the Gunners managed to escape with a win and ultimately that’s all that really matters in these playoff rounds. What gives me a bit more confidence in Arsenal over XX is that they are thrown in to pot one in the group stage draw. As long as they avoid a group of death, the Gunners should be through to the next round because it seems they are just figuring things out on the attacking side of the game. If they start scoring goals in Europe this is going to be a scary side going forward.
3. FC Porto (Portugal)
The Portuguese giants showed they could be one of the best defensive sides in the group stages with a two-legged clean sheet against Lille in their final playoff round win. Don’t forget, this is a side that has made the most Champions League appearances of any club in Europe (tied with Real Madrid and Barcelona). Experience is a great help, so is being in pot one with the rest of the heavyweights. As long as they don’t draw a strong player in pot two this team should be good to go forward. The only thing that worries me is the attack of Porto, as they need to prove they can score more goals.
2. Athletic Bilbao (Spain)
Athletic Club Bilbao hasn’t been in the Champions League proper since the 1998/99 season, but it proved in the playoff round that it will be a force to be reckoned with. Bilbao’s matchup with Napoli was arguably the biggest of all the playoff ties and Bilbao got the result it was hoping for with a 3-1 win at home and a 1-1 tie at Napoli. This team will be in pot three for Thursday’s draw, and that will make it very interesting for advancement. However, based off performance, this is a team that could do some serious damage come the group stage.
1. Bayer Leverkusen (Germany)
Simply put, Leverkusen had the biggest beat down we saw in the final playoff round. Winning 7-2 on aggregate and 4-0 at home over FC Copenhagen spoke volumes as far as I’m concerned. Sure Copenhagen isn’t a great side, but they aren’t that bad. Leverkusen’s attack is downright scary. Residing in pot three means they could be in for a difficult draw, but Leverkusen appears ready for any challenge because of the way they can score. I feel in love with this team and the way they play soccer during the last stage, and more are likely to do the same during the group stage.