NYON, SWITZERLAND: Last season’s semifinalist Ajax will start their Champions League campaign against unbeaten Greek title winner PAOK Thessaloniki in the third qualifying round, after the draw was made Monday.
Four-time European champion Ajax began in the second preliminary round last July and was one minute from the final before being eliminated by Tottenham’s stoppage-time winning goal in May.
As the Dutch league winner, Ajax now start one qualifying round later — on Aug. 6 or 7, with the first leg in Greece — needing to beat two opponents instead of three to join the elite 32-team group stage.
However, Ajax return after selling star midfielder Frenkie de Jong to Barcelona and teenage captain Matthijs de Ligt to Juventus, and 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 winner in Europe last season. Both are in the draw section just for national champions.
Porto, a two-time European champion, were paired with Krasnodar in a separate qualifying path for teams that placed second or third in higher-ranked leagues.
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.
First-leg games are played Aug. 6-7, and return games on Aug. 13.
The second qualifying round has yet to be played. It begins Tuesday and will be completed on July 31.
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.
Greek runners-up Olympiakos, which face Viktoria Plzen in the second qualifying round, will play Turkey’s league runners-up Istanbul Basaksehir if they advance.
Teams which are eliminated in the third qualifying round transfer across to the Europa League, in either the playoff round in August or direct to the 48-team group stage in September.
In the Europa League third qualifying round draw, third-place Dutch team Feyenoord were paired with Dinamo Tbilisi or Gabala. AEK Athens, the 2018 champion of Greece, will play either Honved or Universitatea Craiova.