MONACO — Real Madrid will start its Champions League title defense against five-time winner Liverpool, FC Basel and Bulgarian club Ludogorets Razgrad.
The 10-time champions, aiming to become the first team to retain the title in 25 years, were drawn into Group B on Thursday. Barcelona and Ajax, both former clubs of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, were drawn to face the Sweden striker’s current team, Paris Saint-Germain, and APOEL.
Four-time champion Bayern Munich, Manchester City and CSKA Moscow — who also faced each other last season — are joined by Roma in perhaps the toughest group. Also, Arsenal will face Borussia Dortmund for the third time in four seasons. Galatasaray and Anderlecht complete that group.
In another Germany vs. England draw, Chelsea’s group includes Schalke alongside Sporting Lisbon and Maribor. Atletico Madrid, last season’s runner-up, was grouped with Juventus, Olympiakos and Malmo. In perhaps the toughest group to predict, Benfica is with Zenit St. Petersburg, Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco. The longest travel times face the group of Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Athletic Bilbao and BATE Borisov of Belarus.
The eight four-team groups begin play on Sept. 16-17. The top two teams in each group advance to the knockout rounds. Madrid and Liverpool provide almost half of the 36 European Cup and Champions League titles shared among 10 former winners in the draw.
Two newcomers to the Champions League group stage are Ludogorets and Malmo, the runner-up in 1979 as a semi-professional club. Ludogorets had perhaps the most memorable route to the elite stage: It got a 90th-minute equalizer in a playoff Wednesday against Steaua Bucharest before defender Cosmin Moti had to go in goal in extra time and saved two penalties in the decisive shootout.
The 32 teams will share nearly 1 billion euros ($1.34 billion) in UEFA prize money. UEFA pays a basic 8.6 million euros ($11.5 million) fee for entering the group, plus 1 million euros ($1.34 million) per win and 500,000 euros ($670,000) per draw. Teams also receive a share of television-rights money.
The final will be played June 6 at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin.
LIVERPOOL’S 2014-15 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE GROUP FIXTURES
Sept. 16: Ludogorets Razgrad (home)
Oct. 1: FC Basel (away)
Oct. 22: Real Madrid (home)
Nov. 4: Real Madrid (away)
Nov. 26: Ludogorets Razgrad (away)
Dec. 9: FC Basel (home)
Photo via Twitter/@Footy_Memories