By Brian Homewood
MONACO (Reuters) – Juventus forward Cristiano Ronaldo will face his former club Manchester United after the two European giants were drawn together in the Champions League group stage on Thursday.
Last season’s runners-up Liverpool, big-spending French league champions Paris St Germain and Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli were thrown together in the pick of the groups while holders Real Madrid must face last season’s semi-finalists AS Roma.
Inter Milan, back in the competition after a six-season absence, were pitted against Barcelona and Tottenham Hotspur.
The Champions League has been altered this season, with more places given to teams from the bigger leagues — Spain, England, Germany and Italy now have four guaranteed slots apiece — and fewer from Europe’s less glamorous competitions.
The new system could cut down on the number of one-sided contests which have spoiled the group stage in recent seasons.
But critics say it could increase the competitive imbalance in European football and remove what romance is left.
Due to the seeding system and UEFA’s policy of keeping teams from the same countries apart in the group stage, there was a shortage of big heavyweight clashes but lots of intriguing ties.
One of the most interesting will be in Group H where Ronaldo — who twice faced United in the Champions League as a Real Madrid player — meets them again in a Juventus shirt.
Ronaldo, a United player from 2003 to 2009, scored when they beat Chelsea on penalties in the 2008 final after a 1-1 draw and has faced them twice in the competition since with Real Madrid.
Juventus are clear favourites in the group where Jose Mourinho’s troubled United are likely to battle Valencia for second spot, with debutants Young Boys Bern the rank outsiders.
“It’s a demanding group with teams of great value, great tradition and historic stadiums,” said Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri. “This is the new Champions League”
Group C was closest to a ‘Group of Death’, as it pitted Liverpool, Paris St Germain and Napoli against each other.
That formidable trio will be joined by Red Star Belgrade, who won the old European Cup in 1991 but will be appearing in the Champions League group stage for the first time.
“It’s a very tough group but the most important thing for us is that we have managed to get into the group stage and compete at this level,” Red Star president Svetozar Mijailovic told reporters.
Inter’s wildly unpredictable form under Luciano Spalletti means anything can happen in Group B where they face Barcelona, PSV Eindhoven and Tottenham.
The English Premier League team are the only ones of the four who are not former European champions.
Group E also has three former European champions — Bayern Munich, Benfica and Ajax Amsterdam — alongside AEK Athens. Bayern should progress comfortably with Benfica and Ajax likely to battle for second place and AEK as dangerous outsiders.
“It could have been worse, but we cannot afford negligence if we want to finish first,” said Bayern forward Thomas Mueller.
Real Madrid and Roma should qualify from Group G where CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen are the other contenders.
“We picked the best team in the world and two others who will create us many problems,” said Roma captain Daniele De Rossi.
Pep Guardiola will begin his latest attempt to win the European title with Manchester City in Group F where they will be the favourites against Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk, Olympique Lyonnais and debutants Hoffenheim.
“Manchester City are a massive challenge for us,” said Hoffenheim coach Julien Nagelsmann. “But I was hoping we would draw a big team and we got one.”
Atletico Madrid, AS Monaco and Borussia Dortmund were drawn in Group A, an evenly-balanced group completed by Club Bruges.
Group D is possibly the most open, featuring former European champions Porto, Lokomotiv Moscow, Schalke 04 and Galatasaray.
(Writing by Brian Homewood; Additional reporting by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Editing by Toby Davis and Ken Ferris)