NYON: Last season’s Champions League semi-finalists Ajax were on Monday drawn to face unbeaten Greek title winners PAOK Thessaloniki in the third qualifying round for this year’s group stages.

Four-time European champion Ajax began in the second preliminary round last July and were seconds from the final before being eliminated by Tottenham Hotspur’s stoppage-time winning goal in May.

As the Dutch Eredivisie winners, Ajax now start one qualifying round later on Aug. 6 or 7, with the first leg PAOK’s Toumba Stadium, needing to beat two opponents instead of three to join the elite group stage.

But they got the toughest possible opposition. Ajax were the highest-ranked seeded team and PAOK were highest ranked in the pot of unseeded teams after being the only unbeaten league winners in Europe last season, winning the Greek Super League by finishing five points ahead of Olympiakos. Both were in the draw section just for national champions.

Ajax have already lost several players from their exciting young squad. Central defender Matthijs de Ligt has left for Juventus while midfielder Frenkie de Jong has joined Barcelona.

Dutch league winners and runners-up have to enter the qualifying rounds because the country has slipped in UEFA’s rankings. Each nation is graded by its clubs’ results in European club competitions in a rolling five-year assessment.

However, Ajax’s acclaimed run to the semifinals means the Dutch title winners this season are almost certain to go directly into the Champions League group stage next year.

Ajax edged PAOK 3-2 on aggregate when the teams met in the third qualifying round three years ago.

Since then, PAOK won their first Greek title in 34 years to continue a revival during the ownership of Russian-Greek businessman Ivan Savvidis.

Two-time European champions Porto, who finished two points behind champions Benfica in Portugal, were paired with Krasnodar, who finished third in Russia, in a separate qualifying path for teams that placed second or third in higher-ranked leagues while Belgian runners-up Club Brugge will meet their Ukrainian counterparts Dynamo Kiev.

Also, Dynamo Kiev will face Club Brugge, and Austria’s LASK will take on either PSV Eindhoven, the 1988 European champion, or Basel.

UEFA had to intervene to keep the Russian and Ukraine teams apart and uphold a rule imposed in 2014 across all its competitions for security reasons.

Dynamo Kiev were drawn against Krasnodar, then shifted down to the next fixture slot as the away team. UEFA has separated clubs from the two countries since Russia annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine. Porto were drawn next and paired with Krasnodar.

The second qualifying round has yet to be played. It begins on Tuesday and will be completed on July 31.

Greek runners-up Olympiakos, who face Viktoria Plzen in the second qualifying round, will play Turkey’s league runners-up Istanbul Basaksehir if they advance.

If Scottish champions Celtic beat Estonia’s Nomme Kalju in the second round of qualifying, they will face either Romanian side Cluj or Maccabi Tel-Aviv of Israel.

Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2019

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