Title holder Real Madrid and other European powers could be paired against some fresh faces in the Champions League draw on Thursday.
The 32-team lineup in Monaco includes group-stage debutants Red Star Belgrade and Young Boys, plus clubs ending long absences from the lucrative competition that has a record €1.95-billion ($2.28-billion) in prize money this season.
Inter Milan is back in the group stage for the first time in seven years; four-time champion Ajax returns after a four-year gap; and AEK Athens is the lowest-ranked club in the draw after 12 years away.
Red Star won the 1991 European Cup but hasn’t made the group stage since the tournament was rebranded the Champions League a year later. It was among the last three teams to qualify when the playoff round was completed on Wednesday, along with PSV Eindhoven and Benfica.
Lokomotiv Moscow ends a 15-year absence, but as Russian champion it goes into the pot of top-seeded teams and avoids the likes of three-time defending champion Madrid, and five-time champions Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Juventus is also top-seeded, with new signing Cristiano Ronaldo seeking a fourth straight Champions League trophy to end the Italian giant’s 23-year wait for a third European title.
Seeding is based on a team’s Champions League and Europa League results over the past five years. Last season’s runner-up Liverpool is in the third pot while 2010 champion Inter is in pot 4 as they are making up for lost seasons when they failed to qualify.
This season kicks off a new three-year round of broadcasting and sponsor deals that have increased prize money, which will also be more generously weighted toward teams that have a storied history with European titles since 1956.
Real Madrid is guaranteed to earn at least €50-million ($59-million) before kicking a ball, and all 32 teams get a basic €15.25-million ($17.8-million) entry fee.
UEFA pays €2.7-million ($3.2-million) per group-stage win and 900,000 euros ($1.05-million) for a draw. More fees are earned for reaching each subsequent round, plus some “market pool” TV money.
Teams from the same country cannot be drawn together, while Shakhtar Donetsk in Pot 2 will be separated from Lokomotiv and CSKA Moscow, in Pot 3, due to ongoing political tensions between Ukraine and Russia.
Pot 1: Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain. Manchester City, Lokomotiv Moscow.
Pot 2: Borussia Dortmund, Porto, Manchester United, Shakhtar Donetsk, Benfica, Napoli, Tottenham, Roma.
Pot 3: Liverpool, Schalke, Lyon, Monaco, Ajax, CSKA Moscow, PSV Eindhoven, Valencia.
Pot 4: Viktoria Plzen, Club Brugge, Galatasaray, Young Boys, Inter Milan, Hoffenheim, Red Star Belgrade, AEK Athens.