Can Arsenal kick on and cap a fine week with a win at Leicester?

Preview: UEFA Champions League play-offs – Arsenal wary of Turkish test


The riches of the UEFA Champions League group stages is within touching distance for these 20 teams. Only 10 will make it.

Over the next week, a home and away leg in the UCL play-offs will determine which sides make it to the group stages of Europe’s elite club competition.

[RELATED: Latest Champions League news]

Premier League giants Arsenal are in action, as they face a tricky trip away to Turkey for the second season running. Last year the Gunners hammered Fenerbache to grab a place in the group stages and now they must head back to Istanbul to play Besiktas on Tuesday before welcoming them to the Emirates next Wednesday.

The Gunners will be without left back Kieran Gibbs who tweaked his hamstring against Crystal Palace on Saturday, while Per Mertesacker could be rushed back if Laurent Koscielny doesn’t recover from injury in time. As for Besiktas, they have former Chelsea striker Demba Ba up front, while Canadian midfielder Atiba Hutchinson started in their last game against Feyenoord as the Turkish club won 5-2 on aggregate in the third qualifying round. They are managed by former Croatian national team boss Slaven Bilic and the hostile atmosphere in the Ataturk Stadium will provide the Gunners with a stern test.

Can Arsene Wenger’s men prevail?

Elsewhere on Tuesday, Napoli and Atheltic Bilbao clash in what promises to be a monster tie between the Serie A and La Liga clubs. Rafael Benitez’s Napoli were within a whisker of getting out of their UCL group last term but Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal snuck through, while Bilbao will make their first appearance in the Champions League group stage since 1998-99 if they can get past their Italian opponents.

Other ties which standout on Tuesday is a Northern European battle between Denmark’s FC Copenhagen and Bayer Leverkusen from the Bundesliga, plus former European champions Steaua Bucharest will face Bulgarian champs Ludogorets.

On Wednesday five more UCL play-offs are in store as Ligue 1 side Lille and Portugese giants FC Porto square off, while reinstated Glasgow Celtic face Slovenian champions Maribor after the Hoops were let back in the tournament following Legia Warsaw’s administrative error. Zenit St Petersburg, managed by Andre Villas-Boas face Belgian side Standard Liege, plus Danish side Aalborg host Cyrpus’ Apoel Nicosia.

Below is the draw in full for the play-offs, with the first legs arriving this week, then the second legs coming up next week.

UEFA Champions League play-off first leg (second legs to be played August 26/27)

Besiktas vs. Arsenal
FC Copenhagen vs. Bayer Leverkusen
Napoli vs. Athletic Bilbao
Salzburg vs. Malmo
Steaua Bucharest vs. Ludogorets

Aalborg vs. Apoel Nicosia
Lille vs. Porto
Maribor vs. Celtic
Slovan Bratislava vs. BATE Borisov
Standard Liege vs. Zenit St. Petersburg

“Overweight” Costa comes to Mourinho’s defense

Diego Costa, Chelsea FC
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Diego Costa says he and his Chelsea teammates are to blame for Chelsea’s horrid start to the 2015-16 Premier League season.

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Speaking Thursday, during a bit of downtime over the current international break (Costa was left out of Vicente del Bosque’s squad for Spain’s final two EURO 2016 qualifiers this week), Costa placed the majority of blame at the feet of the entire team, but went on to most harshly critique himself for coming into the season unfocused and “overweight.”

Costa, on his lack of fitness and form to begin the season — quotes from the Guardian:

“We know we’re not in the form we were supposed to be at the beginning of the season. We need to blame the players because we came back from holiday very confident, thinking we could go back into how it was last season, and then realized the team was already in a bad situation.

“I’m going to be very honest: maybe a few weeks ago, five or six weeks ago, I was not on top of my game. At least physically. We talk within the players and we know that, maybe at the beginning, we were not 100 percent as we were supposed to be when we got here. I got injured at the end of last season and then I went on holiday. Maybe I got out of my diet and, when I came back, I was not the way I was supposed to be. I was a little bit overweight. That affected my game. You can be selfish and blame it on the manager but I’m not going to do that. I’m responsible 100%, and so are the other guys.

Given that Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said on Thursday he doesn’t quite know what’s wrong with the defending Premier League champions, hearing someone — anyone — speak up and explain the club’s worst start to a season in 37 years will surely be a welcome sound to any Blues supporter’s ears.

[ MORE: Liverpool appoint Klopp as manager | Allardyce to Sunderland? ]

Costa, who is eligible to return from suspension next weekend when Aston Villa visit Stamford Bridge, has scored just one goal in league play this season (six appearances) after scoring 20 in 26 games last season.

Sam Allardyce to open talks with Sunderland

Sam Allardyce, West Ham United FC
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Now that Liverpool have selected and named their new manager, it appears Sunderland are finally ready to move forward with their own managerial search. (That’s clearly a joke, because it implies Liverpool and Sunderland ever duke it out for the same managerial candidate.)

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Anyway, the Black Cats will have to hire someone to replace the recently-departed Dick Advocaat at some point. We all knew that, despite the fact he’s probably earned a shot at that level, Bob Bradley was never really going to be considered for the job. With that in mind, if you’re not going to endear yourself to the entire United States of America with this hire, you might as well go for the best unemployed manager who’ll actually consider your approach.

That’s what Sunderland chairman Ellis Short appears to have done, as it was reported Thursday that despite an initial reluctance from Sam Allardyce — let’s be honest, he actually was holding out hope for the Liverpool job — the 60-year-old most recently in charge of West Ham United was willing and ready to enter into negotiations with the northeastern club.

One of the major sticking points during Sunderland’s courting of Allardyce is expected to be his demand for autonomy in the transfer market as well as a sizable transfer budget to sign his own players during the January window.

[ MORE: Advocaat: Sunderland squad too thin, chairman to blame ]

Allardyce seems like the no. 1 guy you’d like to bring in to steady a capsized ship — cough Sunderland cough — in any situation. Not only does he have a successful track record in the Premier League, but he’s the kind of no-nonsense leader a club like Sunderland so desperately needs as they find themselves in yet another relegation battle just eight games into the new season.

Short hopes to have Allardyce signed, sealed and delivered when the Premier League returns to action next weekend. In that event, Allardyce’s first game in charge of Sunderland would be a trip to West Bromwich Albion. His first home fixture? Home to Tyne-Wear derby rivals Newcastle United, a club whose boisterous fanbase still holds a great deal of disdain for Big Sam. Sometimes the football gods really are looking out for us.