MONACO: Missing out on the Champions League title in his first season at Juventus still pains Cristiano Ronaldo.
Had it not been for the quarterfinal loss to Ajax last season, Ronaldo might not have been leaving Thursday’s UEFA group stage draw and awards ceremony empty-handed. So the three-time UEFA player of the year has a renewed hunger heading into the group stage, where Juventus was paired with Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen and Lokomotiv Moscow.
It is a swift reunion with Atletico after their round-of-16 meeting last season, when Cristiano Ronaldo’s second-leg hat trick overturned a 2-0 deficit to send the Italian champions through before they fell to Ajax.
“It’s the hardest competition there is to win,” said Ronaldo, who lifted the European Cup once with Manchester United and four times with Real Madrid. “I’m really up for it.”
But as Ronaldo observed: “The favorite doesn’t always win. Look at Barcelona letting in four at Anfield. Everyone thought we would beat Ajax and we didn’t. The same happened to Madrid.”
Ajax’s astonishing run to the semifinals saw the Dutch side oust Real Madrid in the last 16. Barcelona looked to be coasting into the final before throwing away a 3-0 lead over Liverpool by losing 4-0 at Anfield.
Liverpool’s surge to a sixth European title helped Virgil van Dijk beat Ronaldo and Messi to UEFA’s player of the year award at the ceremony in Monaco after the group stage draw.
Liverpool’s title defense starts with a group that again includes Napoli, which Juergen Klopp’s side had to beat last December to advance to the knockout stage. Salzburg, led by American coach Jesse Marsch, and Genk also await in Group E.
“Liverpool, that’s a huge game, a superb team and an unbelievable challenge,” Marsch said. “Napoli are a very tactically organised team, typically Italian. Belgian champions Genk are obviously going to be tough as well.”
For Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City — among the biggest spending teams of the last decades thanks to investment by state-linked ownership from the Persian Gulf — the quest for a first Champions League title will have contrasting assignments.
Tough for PSG after being paired in a group with a Real Madrid side chasing a record-extending 14th European crown. Relatively straightforward for City, which was placed in a group that doesn’t have any former champions and includes newcomer Atalanta.
In Group A, PSG will also face Club Brugge and Galatasaray. In Group C, City will also take on Shaktar Donetsk and Dinamo Zagreb while facing doubts about its Champions League participation next season as the Abu Dhabi-owned team is investigated for Financial Fair Play breaches.
“I’m a little upset about Manchester City,” Shakhtar striker Júnior Moraes. “Now it’s three years in a row (in the Champions League). We have a balanced group and good chances to qualify from it. City, of course, are a cut above the rest of the teams.”
One of the most eye-catching groups is F. Barcelona, which won the competition for the last time in 2015, was paired with former champions Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan, alongside Slavia Prague.
“That really is a very tough group, which makes it an even bigger challenge for us,” Dortmund coach Lucien Favre said. “Inter want to return to the top of Italian football and have invested a lot this summer to try and achieve that.”
Bayern Munich, which has won the European Cup five times like Barcelona, is in Group B with beaten 2019 finalist Tottenham, Olympiakos and Red Star Belgrade.
“We can definitely live with that group,” Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic said. “Our expectation is to qualify for the knockout stages as group winners, but we would be well-advised not to underestimate any team.
“Especially in Piraeus and in Belgrade we will not only come up against highly-motivated opposition, but also a very passionate home crowd.”
Ajax, which had to go through qualifying to reach the group stage, was drawn with Chelsea, which qualified as Europa League champion, Valencia and Lille in Group H.
Group G seems the least appealing for global television audiences: Zenit St. Petersburg, Benfica, Lyon and Leipzig.
The final is at Istanbul’s Atatürk Olympic Stadium on May 30.