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CL produces heavyweight matchups even without a Super League

August 26, 2021 GMT
The groups and club names are displayed on the screen at the end of the soccer Champions League draw in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
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The groups and club names are displayed on the screen at the end of the soccer Champions League draw in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
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The groups and club names are displayed on the screen at the end of the soccer Champions League draw in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

European football’s biggest teams didn’t need a Super League to secure heavyweight clashes this season.

The draw for the Champions League did the job in Istanbul on Thursday, after three of the rebels still pursuing the breakaway competition were allowed entry to the group stage.

So Madrid, the record 13-time winners of the European Cup, will be taking on Italian champion Inter Milan — one of nine clubs who quickly abandoned the Super League split in April. They are in Group D with Shakhtar Donetsk and Sheriff, the Moldovan side which qualified for the Champions League for the first time and would have struggled to squeeze into the planned largely-closed breakaway.

“We are living a fairy tale,” Sheriff manager Iurii Vernydub said, “and want it to continue for as long as possible.”

Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus were only allowed into the Champions League this season because UEFA’s disciplinary case about their pursuit of a Super League is on hold.

Barcelona, which is weighed down by $1.6 billion in debt and won the fifth of its European titles in 2015, is in Group E with Bayern Munich, the six-time winners who wouldn’t sign up to the Super League. They’ll also play Benfica and Dynamo Kyiv.

Juventus will come up against defending champion Chelsea, one of the six English clubs to implode the Super League inside 48 hours and accepting fines from UEFA for the mutiny. They are in Group H with Malmo and Zenit St. Petersburg, whose stadium will host the final.

One of the biggest winners from the Super League debacle was Paris Saint-Germain, which refused to sign up and its president, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, replaced Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli as head of the European Club Association.

What’s missing now for PSG, which gets its funding from Qatar’s sovereign wealth, is lifting the European Cup for the first time. Signing Lionel Messi should help PSG’s European quest, which ended in the semifinals against Manchester City last season.

There’s an instant reunion of two of world football’s richest clubs, with PSG in Group A together with Abu Dhabi-funded City, which is also yet to win European football’s top prize.

“It is (about revenge),” Al-Khelaifi said. “We lost last year’s semifinal, so it will be a good motivation for our players, our manager and, you know, it will be interesting for the viewers. So it will be big matches.”

They’ll also face German club Leipzig, which had a win and loss against PSG in last season’s group stage, and Club Brugge, which has never played the German club or City.

City was the first English club to officially pull out of the Super League and Liverpool was among the last after a backlash from fans and even players who helped win the Champions League for a sixth time in 2019. Liverpool, which only qualified for the Champions League on the last day of last season, is in Group B with AC Milan —- which won the last of its seven European titles in 2007 against the Reds and is back in the competition after a seven-year absence — Atletico Madrid, and Porto.

“I laughed, to be honest, pretty loud because it is a tough group obviously,” Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp said. “It’s the Champions League, so that’s how it is, and you have to play the best teams in Europe, and obviously some of them are in our group.”

Group F will see rematches of last season’s Europa League final which saw Manchester United surprisingly beaten by Villarreal. They will also face Atalanta and Young Boys.

Sporting Lisbon, Borussia Dortmund, Ajax and Besiktas were drawn in Group C. Lille, Sevilla, Salzburg, and Wolfsburg are in Group G.

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