Ajax to play PAOK of Greece in Champions League qualifying

UEFA Deputy Secretary-General Giorgio Marchetti during the drawing of the matches for the Champions League 2019/20 third qualifying round at the UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, Monday. (AP)
Updated 22 July 2019

Ajax to play PAOK of Greece in Champions League qualifying

  • Ajax now start one qualifying round later — on Aug. 6 or 7

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.


Manchester United and City seek derby delight

Updated 06 December 2019

Manchester United and City seek derby delight

  • Liverpool travel to Bournemouth aiming to surge further clear at the top of the points chart

LONDON: Both sides of the Manchester divide will be hoping some derby delight can add impetus to disappointing seasons when City host United on Saturday, while Liverpool travel to Bournemouth aiming to surge further clear at the top of the Premier League.

Manchester United got a badly needed win for manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Wednesday, inflicting a first defeat on Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho as the Portuguese returned to Old Trafford.

The Red Devils were again reliant on Marcus Rashford goals as the England forward struck twice to take his tally to 12 in 13 games for club and country.

“He was strong, direct, taking people on, inside and outside with no fear,” said Solskjaer. “That’s what we want — we want to see boys enjoying themselves.”

There has been precious little for United fans to enjoy this season, but just a fifth Premier League victory in 15 games was enough to lift them up to sixth.

That is still 11 points adrift of third-placed City, despite their own struggles at times.

Pep Guardiola’s men looked more like their old selves in thrashing Burnley 4-1 on Tuesday with Gabriel Jesus stepping up in the absence of the injured Sergio Aguero to score twice.

City have lost just one of six league meetings with United since Guardiola took charge three years ago and cannot afford to slip up if they are to maintain any aspirations of catching Liverpool in the title race. The English champions could kick off at the Etihad 14 points behind the leaders, should Jurgen Klopp’s men continue their scintillating form at Bournemouth earlier on Saturday.

“For the distance we are behind Liverpool it would be crazy to think about the title, we have to think about the derby,” said Guardiola.

Klopp could even afford the luxury of leaving Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah on the bench for a 5-2 thrashing of Everton in the Merseyside derby in midweek.

Both are expected to return for the visit to the south coast, but Klopp may rest some of his stars who did start against Everton ahead of a huge week for the European champions.

Liverpool travel to Salzburg in the Champions League on Tuesday needing to avoid defeat if their defense of the title is not to embarrassingly end in the group stages.

Divock Origi scored twice against Everton and Xherdan Shaqiri struck on his first start of the season to prove Klopp does have the strength in depth to successfully shuffle his pack.

“It’s easy for me to tell them often, very often, how good they are but if they then don’t play it’s not too easy for them to always understand what I say,” said Klopp.

“But if they play and deliver like they did, it’s a very, very important sign for the whole squad.”

Leicester remain Liverpool’s closest challengers, eight points back in second, thanks to a run of eight straight wins in all competitions.

“The team is developing and are proving they have a winning mentality and mindset,” said Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers, who has dismissed speculation linking him with the vacant managerial role at Arsenal.

Next up for the in-form Foxes is a trip to Aston Villa on Sunday.

Villa are one of a host of teams hauled back into the battle to avoid relegation by Southampton’s resurgence with Dean Smith’s men just one point above the drop zone.