Monaco, Aug 26: Champions League winner Barcelona will begin its title defense with a match at home to AC Milan, before the traditional powers play two unheralded Eastern European teams in a group drawn by UEFA on Thursday.
Four-time winner Barcelona hosts the seven-time champion—a rematch of the 1994 final which Milan won 4-0 -- on Sept. 13, sending forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic back to the Nou Camp where he was harshly judged to be an expensive failure two seasons ago. Group H also includes BATE Borisov of Belarus and Czech newcomer Viktoria Plzen.
Manchester United, last season's runner-up, is top-seeded in an apparently weak group with Benfica, Switzerland's FC Basel and Romanian debutant Otelul Galati.
Bayern Munich, whose stadium will stage the final next May, got a tough draw with Villarreal, big spenders Manchester City and Napoli—all teams from Europe's four highest ranked leagues.
Real Madrid, the record nine-time European champion, faces Lyon, four-time winner Ajax and Dinamo Zagreb.
To get Ibrahimovic in 2009, Barcelona sent ¤46 million (then $66 million) plus Samuel Eto'o to Inter Milan, but he lasted just one season in coach Pep Guardiola's system.
Barca technical director Andoni Zubizarreta said on Thursday that the Sweden international was capable of making his old club pay again.
“We need to think about all the (Milan) team ... but I'm sure we are going to suffer from Ibra,” Zubizarreta said.
Man United has fond memories of playing Benfica, having beaten the Portuguese club when it won its first European title in 1968.
“It's a good draw for us, especially having Sir Bobby Charlton talking about them on stage before the draw,” chief executive David Gill said. “We've got to be confident.”
Otelul Galati director general Marius Stan doubted his club could beat the three-time European champion.
“We want to win but it's impossible. We are a little team. For us, it's a big honor to play Manchester,” said Stan, confirming that the home match will be in Bucharest because Galati's stadium does not meet UEFA standards.
Bayern director Karl Hopfner said Group A was “the hardest of all.”
“It's four teams from the four best leagues in the world, but we need to qualify,” Hopfner said.
Man City director Brian Marwood said all the group had “great experience in Europe (and) have won honors at the highest level.”
Debuting in the world's most prestigious club competition, City aims to build a global reputation after the ruling family of Abu Dhabi funded a spending spree on transfer fees and player wages.
“We feel we have a very competitive squad who can compete at this level,” Marwood said. “I believe this club has got great momentum now.”
Inter Milan, the 2010 winner, is top-seeded in a group with CSKA Moscow, Lille and Trabzonspor.
“It's a dangerous group. That's the Champions League,” Inter coach Gian Piero Gasperini said.
Trabzonspor already lost to Benfica in the qualifying rounds but was reprieved by UEFA less than 24 hours before the draw when Turkey's federation barred domestic champion Fenerbahce while it is investigated in a match-fixing scandal.
Arsenal was rewarded for a tense passage through the playoff round with a group including Marseille, Olympiakos of Greece and Bundesliga champion Borussia Dortmund,
the No. 4 seed all teams wished to avoid. Arsenal opens away to Dortmund on Sept. 13.
Chelsea was drawn to face Valencia after buying the Spanish club's star forward Juan Mata this week for a reported £30 million ($43 million). Group E is completed by Bayer Leverkusen and Belgian champion Genk.
Two-time winner FC Porto faces long trips to play Group G rivals Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine and Russia's Zenit St. Petersburg. APOEL of Cyprus completes the group.
Each team plays six matches in a program scheduled from Sept. 13 through Dec. 7.
The top two in each group advance to the knockout rounds starting in February, and the eight third-placed teams join the Europa League competition in its knockout phase.
The 32 teams are set to share £754 million ($1.09 billion) in prize money and bonuses distributed by UEFA. AP