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Barcelona, Messi await road to retain Champions League title with group-stage draw Thursday

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GENEVA — The Champions League season takes shape Thursday when UEFA draws 32 elite teams into groups in Monaco.

The most coveted prize in club football promises the world's best players performing at arguably their highest level.

Barcelona and start as favorites to become the first team to retain the title since the old European Cup was rebranded as the Champions League in 1992.

Real Madrid hopes can help the club to a record-extending 11th title, and his old club Manchester United returns after a one-year absence.

Here are some things to know about the 2015-16 Champions League group-stage draw:


NEW SEEDS

Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid to kick it off on Sept. 15? Or Barcelona vs. Man United?

It could happen because UEFA scrapped the seeding system which meant the top eight teams ranked by past Champions League performance avoided each other.

Top-seeded status now goes to the title holder and national champions of top-ranked leagues.

That has dropped Madrid, Man United and Arsenal into Pot 2. Madrid cannot be in Barcelona's group because teams from the same country are kept apart until the quarterfinals.

The new elite includes Paris Saint-Germain, Zenit St. Petersburg and PSV Eindhoven, which would have been in Pot 3 under the old system.

Seedings:

Pot 1: Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Benfica, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, Zenit St. Petersburg, PSV Eindhoven.

Pot 2: Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Porto, Arsenal, Manchester United, Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen, Manchester City.

Pot 3: Shakhtar Donetsk, Sevilla, Lyon, Dynamo Kiev, Olympiakos, CSKA Moscow, Galatasaray, Roma.

Pot 4: BATE Borisov, Borussia Moenchengladbach, Wolfsburg, Dinamo Zagreb, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Gent, Malmo, Astana.


NEW BOYS

Two newcomers to the Champions League groups or European Cup are in the draw.

Belgian champion Gent won its first national title in May to earn a direct place.

Astana came through qualifying rounds to debut as the first team from Kazakhstan in the group stage, and easily the lowest-ranked of the 32 by UEFA.


PRIZE MONEY RAISE

The Champions League is not as lucrative as the English Premier League, but is doing just fine.

Booming broadcast rights deals let UEFA increase prize money by 33 percent for each of the next three seasons.

The 32 clubs will share more than 1.2 billion euros ($1.37 billion) in entry payments, results bonuses and shares of television money.

Each gets a basic 12 million euros ($13.1 million), and can earn 1.5 million euros ($1.71 million) for each win and 500,000 euros ($570,000) for draws. Prize money escalates in the knockout rounds.

The biggest earner of UEFA prize money this season should get around 80 million euros ($91.4 million), compared to 60 million euros ($68.5 million) during the previous three-year commercial cycle.


RECORD CHASERS

Each goal scored by and will fuel a particular duel.

Both have 77 Champions League goals, tied for the record in the 60-year history of the competition.

The Barcelona and Real Madrid stars also compete during Thursday's draw for the title of UEFA Best Player in Europe for last season. Messi's Barcelona teammate completes the shortlist of candidates voted by journalists from each of UEFA's 54 member nations.

Chelsea coach and Bayern's Pep Guardiola resume their pursuit of a third European title, trying to equal the record of Bob Paisley (Liverpool, 1977, 1978, 1981) and (AC Milan 2003, 2007; Real Madrid 2014)

Mourinho would be the first coach to win with three different clubs, after Porto (2004) and Inter Milan (2010).


RUSSIA vs. UKRAINE

For a second season, UEFA keeps teams from Russia and Ukraine apart.

UEFA made the ruling in July 2014 to avoid fueling tension between the countries during conflict in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Shakhtar Donetsk has played home games in Lviv while its home city is a focus of fighting.


MATCH-FIXING

Greek champion Olympiakos is in the draw despite its president, Vangelis Marinakis, being implicated in a criminal investigation of alleged match-fixing.

UEFA rules bar teams proven to have been involved in fixing a match since 2007.

However, the Court of Arbitration for Sport this week dismissed an appeal by Panathinaikos, after UEFA said it had no conclusive evidence from Greece to deny Olympiakos its place.

UEFA can disqualify teams midseason if fixing allegations are proven.


FINAL DESTINATION

The six-round group stage program kicks off Sept 15 and ends Dec. 9. The top two in each group advance to the two-legged knockout rounds which start Feb. 16.

UEFA picked San Siro in Milan to host the May 28 final but there is no home advantage to play for the famed big-eared trophy.

Neither Milan club — AC or Inter, which have a combined 10 European Cup or Champions League titles — qualified for the second straight season.

San Siro will stage its fourth final, and first since Bayern beat Valencia in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw in 2001.

PHOTO: FC Barcelona's  Luis Suarez of Uruguay, center, celebrates his goal with his fellow teammate  Sergi Carnicer, and Lionel Messi of Argentinaafter scoring against Athletic Bilbao soccer team during their Spanish La Liga soccer match,  at San Mames stadium in Bilbao, northern Spain, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)
FC Barcelona's Luis Suarez of Uruguay, center, celebrates his goal with his fellow teammate Sergi Carnicer, and Lionel Messi of Argentinaafter scoring against Athletic Bilbao soccer team during their Spanish La Liga soccer match, at San Mames stadium in Bilbao, northern Spain, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

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PHOTO: Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo reacts during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Real Madrid and Sporting de Gijon at the 'El Molinon' stadium in Gijon, Spain, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Jose Vicente)
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