Brighton to face European giants Ajax and Marseille in Europa League

Europa League debutants Brighton were drawn to take on former Champions League winners Ajax and Marseille in Friday’s group stage draw.

Roberto De Zerbi’s men secured a first season in continental football with a sixth-place finish in last season’s Premier League table, and their reward is matches against four-time European champions Ajax and the 1993 European Cup winners Marseille.

The Seagulls’ other group opponents are reigning Greek champions AEK Athens, with the first round of group stage games to be played on Thursday, September 21.

Brighton chief executive Paul Barber said: “It’s a really tough draw obviously from a footballing perspective, but from a fans’ perspective, and as an opportunity for the club to showcase what we can do, I think it is a fantastic draw and we are looking forward to all three of the games.

“It’s the first time in 122 years we have been competing in European football so from that point of view, it is a really special moment in the club’s history. I think for the fans, they have been waiting for this for a very, very long time.

“If you go back 25 years to the darker days at the club, many thought they would never see this happen so it is a reward for all the effort they put in to help save the club, to get the Amex built and now they will be able to see some really big clubs play at our home stadium as well as having the opportunity to travel to those clubs as well.

“The Premier League would have been an incredible thing for fans at that time. European football would have been a pipe dream but here we are, we have not only got to the Europa League, we have a fantastic group.”

Barber is banking on Brighton doing far more than simply making up the numbers though.

“We know it will be a different experience and a different challenge but we have players with that experience and we have a coach with that experience so we are looking forward to it.

“We are looking to make sure we have a deep enough squad in four competitions and go as far as we can. Obviously it is a new experience, particularly the Thursday-Sunday, Thursday-Sunday, travel, all those sorts of things.”

Liverpool, three-time winners of the competition in its former guise of the UEFA Cup, were placed alongside LASK of Austria, Belgian club Union St Gilloise and Toulouse from France.

The third Premier League representatives in Friday’s draw were West Ham by virtue of their victory in last season’s Europa Conference League final.

The Hammers go up against 47-time Greek champions Olympiacos, German club Freiburg and European debutants TSC Backa Topola from Serbia.

Rangers, who dropped into the Europa League after suffering a Champions League play-off defeat to PSV Eindhoven earlier this week, will take on Real Betis from Spain.

It means another trip to Seville for the Light Blues, where they lost the 2022 Europa League final to Eintracht Frankfurt.

Also paired with Rangers are Sparta Prague of the Czech Republic and Cypriot champions Aris Limassol.

The winners of the eight groups progress straight to the last 16, while the eight runners-up will take on the eight third-placed sides from the Champions League group stage in the knockout round play-offs.

This season’s final takes place in Dublin on May 22.