BIG BOYS’ GAME
Liverpool, Napoli handed tough Champions League draws
LIVERPOOL must come through a tough twolegged playoff tie against Hoffenheim if they are to return to the group stage of the Champions League after a threeyear absence, following yesterday’s draw.
Jurgen Klopp will take his Liverpool team back to his native Germany for the first leg on Aug 15 or 16 with the return at Anfield a week later.
Hoffenheim, whose Rhein Neckar Arena is in Sinsheim in south-west Germany, are in the Champions League for the first time in their history after finishing fourth in the Bundesliga last season.
Their coach Julian Nagelsmann, who turned 30 last month, is one of the most highly-rated young trainers in the game.
Liverpool finished fourth in the English Premier League last season. The five-time European champions were last in the Champions League in 2014-15, when they failed to make it out of their group.
Spanish side Sevilla have been drawn against last season’s Turkish league runners-up Istanbul Basaksehir, who boast the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor and Gael Clichy in their ranks and eliminated Club Brugge in the third qualifying round.
Napoli, who came third in Serie A last season, were handed a difficult draw against Nice, third in France’s Ligue 1 and victors against Ajax in the third qualifying round.
Scottish giants Celtic, who were in the section of the draw reserved for domestic champions, must once again beat Astana of Kazakhstan if they are to return to the group phase.
Celtic won 3-2 on aggregate when the teams met in the third qualifying round last season.
Meanwhile, Everton have been drawn against Croatian outfit Hajduk Split in their Europa League playoff tie.
The English Premier League side were seeded and added to group two of the draw. As a result they were guaranteed to avoid some of the giants swimming around in the waters — the likes of AC Milan and Ajax.
And they will be relatively happy with a trip to the Adriatic, where they will be heavy favourites to progress into the Europa League proper with the first leg at Goodison Park (Aug 17) and the decider in Croatia (Aug 24).
Following a summer of heavy spending, AC Milan will strut their stuff with a relatively short trip to face Macedonian side Shkendija. Ajax, meanwhile, face a Scandinavian derby with Norwegian side Rosenborg.
The Toffees booked their place in the playoff stages after pulling off a 2-0 aggregate victory over Ruzomberok.
Upon sealing a place in the final play-off round, Ronald Koeman committed to taking the competition serious this season despite the knock-on effects in may have for their Premier League performance.
He said: “This competition has always been important for me. I like to be in Europe — it’s important for our experience.” Agencies
Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin (right) goes past Ruzomberok’s Jan Maslo in their Europa League qualifier in Slovakia on Thursday.