European debutants avoid biggest clubs in new competition

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) — UEFA’s newest competition will give several teams their first chance to play in the group stage of a European tournament.

Lincoln Red Imps, Flora Tallinn and Alashkert are among the smallest in the 32-team field for the Europa Conference League, and they all managed to avoid the biggest teams in Friday’s draw.

Gibraltar champion Lincoln will face Copenhagen, PAOK Thessaloniki and Slovan Bratislava, while Estonian club Flora Tallinn landed trips to Belgium, Serbia and Cyprus to face Gent, Partizan Belgrade and Anorthosis.

Armenian club Alashkert was drawn to face Austrian team LASK, Maccabi Tel-Aviv and HJK Helsinki.

UEFA created the third-tier competition to keep more teams from lower-ranked countries involved beyond August, when the qualifying rounds end. UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said the breadth of countries in the lineup justified adding the new tournament.

“Football is not a sport only for elite, it’s not a sport only for the richest people in the world,” Ceferin said ahead of the draw. “It is our sport and it cannot be taken away from us.”

Jose Mourinho’s current club and one of his past clubs were both in the draw.

Roma, which Mourinho joined this year, will face Zorya Luhansk, CSKA Sofia and Bodø/Glimt, an emerging Norwegian club making its debut in a group stage. Tottenham, the only one of the breakaway Super League clubs in the draw, will face Rennes, Vitesse Arnhem and Slovenian club Mura.

Only the eight group winners will advance to the round of 16. The eight second-place teams will then face the third-place teams from the Europa League for the remaining spots in the knockout round.

The slimmed-down Europa League draw was also held Friday, with Napoli and Leicester being put in the same group. They were joined by Spartak Moscow and Legia Warsaw.

Like in the lower competition, only the eight group winners will advance. The second-place teams will face the third-place finishers from the Champions League for the remaining spots.

Only teams from high-ranked domestic leagues and champions from lower-ranked countries were eligible for the revamped Europa League. Napoli and Leicester qualified by finishing in fifth place in Serie A and the Premier League, respectively.

Four former European champions are also in the Europa League field, including Marseille, the winner of the first Champions League in 1993. The French club will face Lazio, Lokomotiv Moscow and Galatasaray.

PSV Eindhoven, Celtic and Red Star Belgrade are the others. PSV will be up against Monaco, Real Sociedad and Sturm Graz, while Celtic is in a group with Bayer Leverkusen, Real Betis and Ferencváros.

Red Star Belgrade, the European champion in 1991, will face Braga, Ludogorets and Midtjylland.

In other groups, it’s: Lyon, Rangers, Sparta Prague and Brøndby; West Ham, Dinamo Zagreb, Genk and Rapid Vienna; and Eintracht Frankfurt, Olympiakos, Fenerbahçe and Antwerp.

The Europa League final is scheduled for May 18 at the home stadium of six-time champion Sevilla. The Europa Conference League final is scheduled for one week later at Albania’s new national stadium in Tirana.

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