Holders Liverpool land Napoli again in Champions League group stages

By Matt Slater, PA Chief Sports Reporter
PA Media: Sport

Defending champions Liverpool must face Napoli for the second season in a row, while beaten finalists Tottenham were paired with Bayern Munich in the draw for the Champions League group stages.

The two other teams drawn in Liverpool’s group – E – were Salzburg and Genk, the champions of Austria and Belgium, respectively. Although they are  tricky opponents for sure, they are not ones who should worry Jurgen Klopp’s men unnecessarily.

Spurs’ group, B, is completed by Greek side Olympiacos, who came through qualifying to reach the last 32, and Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade, who memorably beat Liverpool last season, which should serve as a warning to  Mauricio Pochettino’s side, and Klopp’s.

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Europa League champions Chelsea will face the darlings of last season’s competition Ajax, although they have lost Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong from that superb side, and Valencia and Lille in Group H.

Premier League champions Manchester City were arguably given the easiest of draws – among the English quartet, at least – by getting Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk, a team they beat 9-0 over two ties last season, Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia and Atalanta, third in Serie A last season.

Speaking to reporters after the draw, City’s director of football Txiki Begiristain looked like a man who knew lady luck had smiled on him.

“I think are going to see good football in this group,” said the Spaniard.

“We knew Shakhtar well, we see them for a third time, and Atalanta are a strong team. But we know we can get close to this trophy – one day it is going to come, we have to keep fighting.

“I think we have shown we can win trophies. We just have to keep going, keeping fighting, in our way, our style.”

At a typically lavish ceremony in Monaco on Thursday, the proceedings started with the slightly anomalous spectacle of former Manchester United great Eric Cantona, wearing a flat cap, shirt tucked out and sporting a grey beard, receiving the UEFA President’s award from European football’s boss Aleksander Ceferin.

Eric Cantona receives the UEFA President’s award (AP)
Eric Cantona receives the UEFA President’s award (AP)

Cantona then delivered one of his trademark philosophical treatises, suggesting science will soon be able to make us eternal so that only “accidents, crimes and wars will kill us but unfortunately crimes and wars will multiply – I love football, thank you”.

Once he had departed the stage, special guests Petr Cech and Wesley Sneijder were welcomed on for the evening’s most important business: drawing small footballs from goldfish bowls to decide who plays who in world football’s most lucrative cup competition.

UEFA also announced last season’s goalkeeper, defender, midfielder and forward of the season – Liverpool’s Alisson Becker, Virgil Van Dijk, De Jong and Lionel Messi – but they were just the hors d’oeuvres for the main course of the men’s player of the year, with the candidates Messi, Van Dijk and Cristiano Ronaldo sat next to each other in the front row.

Virgil Van Dijk became UEFA’s men’s player of the year (AP)
Virgil Van Dijk became UEFA’s men’s player of the year (AP)

But having teed up another round in the eternal Messi v Ronaldo debate, UEFA gave the award to Van Dijk, making Liverpool’s Dutch dynamo the first defender to win this prize.

And there was more good news for defenders and England when Lucy Bronze scooped the women’s player of the year. The Lyon star was not present to receive her trophy – richly deserved for her heroics for club and country – as she is on Lionesses duty but she looked delighted and a little bit surprised to be recognised. The camera panned away too fast from Messi and Ronaldo to see their reactions to Van Dijk’s success.

Getting back to the Champions League, the first round of matches take place on September 17 and 18 and all four English sides should be confident of making the last 16, which last year’s quartet achieved as well, starting in February.

City have plenty to prove in this competition, not least because they will play this season under the not insignificant shadow of a financial fair play investigation.

Liverpool are understood to be prioritising their domestic campaign this season, although this notion was rejected by club ambassador Ian Rush, who represented the Reds at the draw.

He told PA: “You can’t prioritise anything. Maybe if you ask the British players, they would say that. But there’s a lot of players from elsewhere who might say something different because of the exposure they received for winning the Champions League.

“If you ask most Liverpool supporters, they would want to win the Premier League but it’s going to be very difficult. In a way it was easier to win the Champions League last season because we got 96 points and still didn’t win it. But we’ve got off to a good start and we’ve got to maintain it.

“With this Champions League group, we know Napoli are good but hopefully we can get into a position where we might be able to rest a few players.”

Elsewhere, Real Madrid will face French giants Paris St Germain, Club Brugge and Galatasaray in Group A, while Barcelona were drawn in Group F alongside Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan and Slavia Prague.

Italian champions Juventus take on Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen and Lokomotiv Moscow in Group D and Group G comprises Zenit St Petersburg, Benfica, Lyon and RB Leipzig.

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