GENEVA: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will face each other for the first time in more than two years after their respective teams, Barcelona and Juventus, were drawn together on Thursday in the Champions League group stage.
Messi and Ronaldo will resume the rivalry they developed when the Portuguese superstar was at Real Madrid. Between them they have won 11 of the last 12 Ballons d’Or.
Defending champions Bayern Munich face a potentially bruising two matches against Atletico Madrid while the draw also produced several other heavyweight clashes including Paris St Germain vs Manchester United and Real Madrid vs Inter Milan.
Premier League champions Liverpool must face Ajax Amsterdam and free-scoring Serie A side Atalanta.
The draw, usually held at a lavish ceremony in a seaside conference hall in Monaco, this time took place in a Geneva television studio due to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.
The late start to the season — a knock-on effect of last season being interrupted by the pandemic — means that the six matchdays will be played between Oct 19 and Dec 9, a month less than usual.
Shortly after the ceremony, UEFA announced that spectators would be allowed to watch matches, up to a maximum of 30 percent of stadium capacity, if local authorities allow.
Barcelona and Juventus, who met in the 2015 final, were paired in Group ‘G’ along with Dynamo Kyiv and Hungarian side Ferencvaros, who are back in the group stage after a 25-year absence.
Ronaldo, 35, and Messi, 33, the two highest scorers in Champions League history with 130 and 115 goals respectively, have not clashed since the Portuguese left Real Madrid to join Juventus at the end of the 2017-18 season.
The pair have only met five times in the Champions League, most recently in 2011 when Barcelona beat Real 3-1 on aggregate in the semi-finals.
“It will be a huge clash with Barcelona and a fascinating encounter because it allows the two best players in the world Ronaldo and Messi to face off against each other,” said Juventus vice-president Pavel Nedved.
It will also be a tough start for Juventus coach Andrea Pirlo, handed the reins in August despite having no previous coaching experience.
Bayern were the first team to be drawn out of the pot by former Chelsea and Ivory Coast forward Didier Drogba, one of the guests at the draw, and were joined by Atletico Madrid, Salzburg and Lokomotiv Moscow.
Paris St Germain, last season’s runners-up, and Manchester United will clash in Group ‘H’, bringing back memories of the English side’s memorable comeback two seasons ago when they won on away goals after losing 2-0 at home.
A tough group was completed by Bundesliga side RB Leipzig and Turkey’s Istanbul Basaksehir — one of four group stage debutants alongside Rennes, FC Midtjylland and Russians Krasnodar.
Group ‘D’ will feature Liverpool and Ajax, who have won the competition 10 times between them, plus Atalanta, who reached the quarter-finals on their debut last season, and Denmark’s Midtjylland.
Thirteen-time champions Real Madrid were drawn in Group ‘B’ alongside Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan, Shakhtar Donetsk and Borussia Moenchengladbach. Inter beat Shakhtar 5-0 last month in the Europa League semi-finals.
Group ‘E’ appeared to be one of the most open groups, featuring Europa League winners Sevilla, Chelsea, Krasnodar and Rennes.
However, it could bring back unhappy memories for Sevilla coach Julen Lopetegui, who was fired as Spain coach at the team camp in Krasnodar two days before the start of the 2018 World Cup.
Group ‘F’ is also unpredictable with Zenit St Petersburg, Borussia Dortmund, Lazio and Club Brugge.
Manchester City will start as clear favourites in Group ‘C’ with Porto, Olympiakos and Olympique de Marseille likely to battle for second spot.
Meanwhile, Seven-time European champions AC Milan were rewarded by being drawn against Celtic and Lille in their Europa League Group on Thursday.
They were drawn in Group ‘F’, one of the toughest of the 12 groups, which also features Sparta Prague.
Coppa Italia winners Napoli also had a tricky draw as they will face Real Sociedad, AZ Alkmaar and Rijeka in Group ‘F’ while AS Roma, the third Serie A side in the hat, will meet Young Boys Bern, Cluj and CSKA Sofia in Group A.
English pair Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur both appeared to be given straightforward draws, with Mikel Arteta’s side to face Rapid Vienna, Norway’s Molde and Ireland’s Dundalk in Group ‘B’.
Tottenham, Champions League runners-up two seasons ago, face Ludogorets Razgrad, LASK Linz and Royal Antwerp in Group ‘J’.
Published in Dawn, October 3rd, 2020