AC MILAN and Arsenal enter the Champions League today in the draw for a play-off round that could be decided in courtrooms as well as stadiums.
Milan and Arsenal are seeded in the ten-team non-champions section where potential opponents include Fenerbahce and Metalist Kharkiv – both threatened with expulsion by Uefa because club officials are implicated in match-fixing cases.
Metalist face a Uefa disciplinary panel next Tuesday, one week before first-leg matches begin, but could appeal any ruling at the Court of Arbitration for Sport and continue to play.
Fenerbahce are already heading to CAS. The Turkish club await a hearing date to appeal against a two-year ban from Uefa competitions. A verdict is expected before the 29 August group-stage draw in Monaco.
The other seeded non-champions are group-stage regulars Lyon, Schalke and Zenit St Petersburg. Seedings are decided by clubs’ results in Uefa competitions over the previous five seasons.
Portuguese newcomers Pacos de Ferreira join the unseeded pool alongside Fenerbahce, Metalist, PSV Eindhoven and Real Sociedad.
Ten national title-holders are in a separate section of the draw, including former European champions Celtic (1967) and Steaua Bucharest (1986). They are seeded alongside Basel, Dinamo Zagreb and Viktoria Plzen.
Unseeded teams looking to break into the group-stage elite are Austria Vienna, Legia Warsaw, Ludogorets Razgrad, Maribor and Shakhter Karagandy. Ludogorets and Shakhter, who have both advanced further than ever before in European competitions, are the true underdogs with Uefa club rankings of No 295 and 324, respectively.
Each play-off round team collects £1.8 million prize money, and the ten winners join 22 elite teams who qualified directly for the lucrative group stage. Complications could pile up for Uefa if Fenerbahce and Metalist win their play-off matches but are then removed for legal reasons. Their defeated third qualifying round opponents this week – Salzburg and PAOK Thessaloniki – could also seek to be reinstated.
Uefa’s Champions League rules require clubs not to have been involved in fixing matches since April 2007. Fenerbahce’s case dates back to 2011 and Metalist’s to 2008. Both clubs deny any wrongdoing.