Liverpool faces Chelsea in tough first-round draw
MONTE CARLO, Monaco (AP) _ Defending champion Liverpool was drawn to face Premier League winner Chelsea in the first-round group stage of the Champions League on Thursday.
But nine-time winner Real Madrid and Manchester United had far easier draws.
Liverpool, which went through six qualifying games to get to the 32-team tournament, will also play Belgium's Anderlecht and Spain's Real Betis in Group G.
Madrid faces Lyon, Olympiakos and Norway's Rosenborg in Group A.
Former Madrid and Spain striker Emilio Butragueno, now a board member at Madrid, described Lyon as a "tough, tough team to beat.
"I like them a lot, they are very strong and of course it will not be easy," Butragueno said.
Madrid will be chasing its 10th European title with next May's final marking the 50th anniversary of the club's inaugural triumph in 1956 _ also the first year of the competition.
"Real Madrid won the first European Cup with Alfredo di Stefano in Paris," Butragueno said. "Right now he is our honorary president. It would be a great honor for us to go back there with him, to play in the final again."
Manchester United is grouped with Villarreal, which ousted another English club Everton on Wednesday, France's Lille and two-time winner Benfica.
"If we think too much about the opposition then we will not compete properly," said Lille coach Claude Puel. "We have to play our normal, skillful football."
Barcelona, one of the favorites, is grouped with Panathinaikos, Germany's Werder Bremen and Udinese, one of four Italian teams in the competition.
Six-time winner AC Milan, whose captain Paolo Maldini helped make the draw in Monte Carlo, is grouped with PSV Eindhoven, the team it ousted in last season's semifinal. Germany's Schalke and Turkey's Fenerbahce are also there.
Arsenal, which has never got so far as the semifinals, enjoyed the easiest draw of the top teams. It and four-time winner Ajax Amsterdam should progress past Sparta Prague and Thun, a Swiss league runner-up that beat Dynamo Kiev and Sweden's Malmo to reach the group stage but has never won a single domestic title.
Inter Milan, which will have to play its three home group games in empty stadiums as a punishment for crowd trouble last season, joins fellow two-time winner FC Porto, Glasgow Rangers and Artmedia Bratislava. Artmedia has already knocked Rangers' city rival Celtic.
Among the competition's 32 clubs are 12 former champions with a combined 40 titles between them. In contrast, Thun, Artmedia and Udinese, had never reached this stage. The top two teams in each group will go through to the second round.
Liverpool beat Chelsea 1-0 on aggregate in last season's semifinal.
"It was a special atmosphere and a special match and I'm sure this season will be fairly similar," Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard said.
Liverpool then beat AC Milan on penalties in the final having been 3-0 down at halftime.
It was allowed into this season's competition even though, as the Premier League's fifth placed team, it didn't qualify through its league position. However, UEFA didn't give Liverpool the country protection, which keeps teams from the same nation apart, as afforded the other sides.
"I don't think we're in a position to complain to be honest (about country protection)," said Gerrard. "I think we just got to happy we've got a chance to get back in this tournament."
Maldini, who scored the opening goal in last season's final inside the first minute, said the loss to Liverpool still hurt.
"It's still an open wound," the Milan captain said. "All the memories are bad ones. We are a great team, we have many trophies, but we lost many too."
Schalke finished runner-up to Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga and should have a good chance of qualifying alongside Milan.
"AC Milan, with all its stars, is surely above all," said Rudi Assauer, general manager of Schalke. "But against Fenerbahce and Anderlecht we must have a good chance of coming through."
Bayern Munich and Juventus, champions of Germany and Italy, are two of Europe's traditional powerhouses.
"If we take advantage of our strengths, reaching the second round should be possible," said Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
"Juventus is particularly exciting. Last season we lost twice 1-0 against them."
Arsenal vice chairman David Dein said the Gunners, who finished runners up to Chelsea last season but won the FA Cup, had an opportunity to make a mark in the tournament.
"We need to succeed in Europe because we've only got as far as the quarterfinals," he said. "We're always asked that question, 'why don't we do better in Europe?' But with success comes expectation and everyone is expected us to do well.
"I think (Swiss defender) Philippe Senderos will tell us a lot about (Thun). He can be our scout."