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English Premiership

Group stage beckons for Arsenal, Celtic

CAZORLA-BESIKTASPARIS, August 25- Arsenal and Celtic headline a list of sides seeking to clinch a place in the lucrative Champions League group stage this week in the return legs of the play-offs.

Ten-man Arsenal escaped Turkey with a goalless draw against Besiktas but the Gunners remain on course for a 17th consecutive group phase appearance although they will be without suspended midfielder Aaron Ramsey for Wednesday’s second leg.

Arsene Wenger’s men displayed their resilience by coming from two goals down to salvage a 2-2 draw at Everton in the Premier League on Saturday and Jack Wilshere believes the result puts them in a perfect frame of mind to wrap up the tie with Besiktas.

“This is a fantastic point and now we have a big game on Wednesday and this will give us great confidence going into that,” the England midfielder told Arsenal.com after the match at Goodison Park.

“We never give up and at this level that is massive. We have always shown over the years that Arsenal are going to battle like mad right until the end.”

The north London club boasts a proud record of having never lost a Champions League qualifying tie and although last week’s draw was the first time in 13 matches they’d failed to win a play-off encounter, the goal is quite simple for Wenger.

“We know the second leg will be tight again, but we are at home, so the task is clear for us – we want to win,” said the Arsenal boss, who led the club to the 2006 Champions League final.

Celtic were held to a 1-1 draw at Slovenian champions Maribor in the first leg but the Scots remain favourites to progress under new coach Ronny Deila.

The Glasgow giants were handed a reprieve after Legia Warsaw fielded an ineligible player in the previous round but suffered a setback as a weakened Celtic side slumped to a 1-0 loss Saturday at Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Scottish Premiership.

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– Bounce back –

Deila, though, expects his players to respond and capitalise on their second chance in Tuesday’s return fixture at Parkhead.

“The players will have no problem picking themselves up. We have a new game now and we are going to bounce back on Tuesday,” Deila told the club’s in-house television channel, Celtic TV.

Striker Anthony Stokes was confident the 1967 European champions would return to the group stage for a third straight season.

“We are in pole position now going back. We are ahead in the tie and we are going back to Celtic Park where we fancy our chances,” the Irishman told UEFA.com.

“It’s not for me to say (if Celtic are favourites to go through). We are ahead in the tie, like I said. But it is going to be a difficult game. They’re a very good technical team.

“But we won’t take our eye off the ball. We’ll fully focus and give it 100 percent.”

Two-time former champions Porto, who hold a 1-0 lead from the first leg, will look to wrap up their tie with French side Lille in Portugal on Tuesday, while Athletic Bilbao versus Napoli is the pick of the fixtures on Wednesday.

Athletic are bidding to qualify for the group stage for the first time since 1998/99 and gained the upper hand with a 1-1 draw againt Napoli, knocked out of a group containing Arsenal last season, in Italy.

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Bayer Leverkusen reached the last 16 last time out and are on course to return to Europe’s premier club competition after a 3-2 win over FC Copenhagen in Denmark last week.

Leverkusen, led by new coach Roger Schmidt, were further boosted by an impressive 2-0 success at Borussia Dortmund in their Bundesliga opener on Saturday.

Champions League fixtures this week (kick-off 1845GMT unless stated otherwise):

Play-offs second leg:

Tuesday:

Zenit St Petersburg (RUS) v Standard Liege (BEL) (1600GMT)

BATE Borisov (BLR) v Slovan Bratislava (SVK)

Porto (POR) v Lille (FRA)

Celtic (SCO) v Maribor (SLO)

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APOEL (CYP) v Aalborg (DEN)

Wednesday:

Ludogorets (BUL) v Steaua Bucharest (ROM)

Malmo (SWE) v Salzburg (AUT)

Athletic Bilbao (ESP) v Napoli (ITA)

Arsenal (ENG) v Besiktas (TUR)

Bayer Leverkusen (GER) v FC Copenhagen (DEN)

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