MONACO (AFP) - Reigning champions Barcelona and returning giants Manchester United were dealt favourable hands in the Champions League draw in Monaco on Thursday.
Barca’s quest to become the first team to retain the European crown began smoothly as Lionel Messi and company were paired with Bayer Leverkusen, Roma and BATE Borisov in Group E.
United grace the competition after a year’s absence and coach Louis van Gaal, who said he preferred to watch a United reserve side in action than proceedings from the Principality, will be more than happy with the three-time winners’ Group B sparring partners PSV Eindhoven, CSKA Moscow and Wolfsburg.
“Great games coming up against Eindhoven, Moscow and Wolfsburg! #UCLdraw #mufc” tweeted new Old Trafford recruit Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho returns to FC Porto, the club he guided to the continental crown in 2004, with this duo joined by Dynamo Kiev and Maccabi Tel-Aviv in Group G.
And there will have been groans emanating from north London with Arsenal pitted against five-time titleholders and old foes Bayern Munich – Olympiakos and Dinamo Zagreb completing Group F.
Bayern and Arsenal have met twice in the last-16 in 2012/2013 and 2013/2014 with the German giants winning on both occasions.
“I think we’re favourites along with Arsenal,” ventured Bayern director Matthias Sammer.
Bayern’s World Cup winning defender Jerome Boateng added: “We have to be happy, it could have been worse. I’m pleased that we’ve already had this opponent (Arsenal) many times before.”
Big-spending Paris Saint-Germain and their Qatari backers are desperate to add a European crown to their trophy sideboard.
But the quarter-finalists in the last three seasons have a tricky time ahead after being lumped in with ten-time continental kings Real Madrid.
But the French champions took the news on the chin - even taking a dig at Real on Twitter, posting a photo of Antonie Komboaure with the caption “PSG-Real. Remember?” in reference to the player’s last minute goal to knock Real out of the UEFA Cup quarter-finals in 1992-93.
PSG coach Laurent Blanc commented: “We can consider ourselves and Real as the favourites.”
Also in the Group A mix are Malmo - the birthplace of PSG talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the side who sent Celtic crashing out of the play-offs on Tuesday - and Shakhtar Donetsk.
“It will be fun for Zlatan to come back home,” Malmo assistant coach Olof Persson said.
“I think he will be welcomed the way he always is when he comes home – like the king of Malmo that he is.”
Real director Emilio Butragueno noted PSG’s progress into serious players on the European stage.
“PSG have grown a lot in recent years, they have signed many good players and have always got stronger. They don’t just have a good starting XI but a very strong squad, so it will be very difficult,” he forecast.
He added: “We need to finish first in the group because we know that the knockout rounds are very dangerous. We will see the calendar and prepare well. In the Champions League it is not just a bad night that punishes you, but just a bad 15 minutes.”
Group C features debutants Astana, one of three first-timers in the competition, Atletico Madrid, Galatasaray and two-time winners Benfica.
Another newcomer, Borussia Moenchengladbach, are set for a Champions League baptism of fire against last season’s finalists Juventus, Manchester City, and Europa League titleholders Sevilla in Group D.
Juve chief executive Beppe Marotta: “We’re aiming to get out of the group although there’s no soft teams in there.”
City captain Vincent Kompany tweeted: “Good games against great teams, happy with that.”
Gent, the third team to be entering uncharted waters, can look forward to trips to Zenit St Petersburg, Valencia – one of a record five Spanish sides – and Lyon in Group H.
The first round gets under way on Sept 15 and concludes next May at Milan’s San Siro which last held the final in 2001, with Bayern Munich beating Valencia on penalties.