Europe’s elite clubs await Champions League draw

Spanish rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid will join England’s

elite clubs Manchester United and Chelsea among the top seeded

teams in Thursday’s Champions League group stage draw.

Inter Milan, the 2010 winner which lost its title to Barcelona,

also heads one of eight four-team groups to be drawn in Monaco.

Seven-time European champion AC Milan dropped into the pot of

No. 2 seeded teams after higher-ranked Arsenal eliminated Udinese

in a playoff on Wednesday.

Big-spending Manchester City seems the most dangerous opponent

of the third-seeded clubs. Rankings are based on performance in

UEFA’s competitions in the past five seasons, and Man City has

played in the second-tier Europa League just twice in that

span.

Bundesliga champion Borussia Dortmund, which won the 1997

Champions League, returns after a nine-year absence as a No. 4

seeded side.

With UEFA rules preventing clubs from the same country being

placed in the same group, a foursome of Barcelona, Milan, Man City

and Dortmund shapes as a tough and glamorous potential group.

The fourth-seeded pot also includes Napoli, which last played in

the old-style European Cup 21 years ago, while Romanian champion

Otelul Galati will make its debut.

One place in the lineup was changed Wednesday when Turkey

withdrew its champion Fenerbahce, which is under suspicion in a

widespread match-fixing investigation.

UEFA’s emergency panel then reinstated Trabzonspor, the Turkish

league runner-up which had been eliminated in the third qualifying

round.

”The panel considered that the Turkish Football Federation took

the right decision to protect the game, fully in line with our

zero-tolerance policy against match-fixing,” UEFA General

Secretary Gianni Infantino said. ”The Turkish Football Federation

has shown with this decision that it takes its full responsibility

in the fight against corruption.”

Trabzonspor will enter the draw, as a No. 4 seed, despite also

being implicated in the match-fixing probe.

UEFA has promised that any club found guilty of corrupting

matches will be kicked out of its marquee competition and have its

results wiped from the record.

The Champions League is the world’s most watched club

competition, and UEFA distributed ?754 million ($1.09 billion) in

prize money and bonuses among clubs which played in last season’s

group stage.

The 32 clubs in Thursday’s draw are set to share at least the

same amount as a three-year cycle of broadcasting and sponsorship

deals ends next May after the final in Munich.

The final places were decided Wednesday when Arsenal, Lyon,

Benfica, Viktoria Plzen and BATE Borisov advanced from their

playoff ties.

The top two teams in each group advance to the knockout rounds

starting in February, and the eight third-placed teams join the

Europa League competition in its knockout phase.

The draw is conducted at the beachside Grimaldi Forum in Monte

Carlo during a lavish ceremony.

As a warmup act, UEFA will announce the inaugural winner of its

Best Player in Europe award. Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Xavi

Hernandez, and Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo figure on a three-player

shortlist elected by a panel of 53 journalists.

The panel, representing each of UEFA’s member nations, also

votes for the winner.

UEFA created the honor after ”France Football” magazine

combined its traditional European award with FIFA’s world player

prize.