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August 29, 2009

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Shakhtar gets tough Europa League start

UEFA Cup winner Shakhtar Donetsk has been drawn against Club Bruges, Partizan Belgrade, and Toulouse in a tough opening group stage of the inaugural Europa League.

Yesterday's draw in Monaco also pitted four-time European champion Ajax Amsterdam against Anderlecht, Dinamo Zagreb and little-known Romanian team Timisoara.

The 48 sides -- including the 10 losing teams from the Champions League playoff round -- were split into four seeding pots, with one seed from each going into the 12 groups. Teams from the same country were kept apart.

The Europa League has replaced the UEFA Cup, with Ukraine's Shakhtar lifting the last trophy when it beat Werder Bremen in May's final. Werder is in Group L with Austria Vienna, Athletic Bilbao and Nacional of Portugal.

Among the other matchups: former European Cup champions Celtic and Hamburg play against each other in Group C; while two-time European Cup winner Benfica takes on Everton in Group I. In Group E, Fulham coach Roy Hodgson will take his side to face FC Basel in Switzerland, where he became a folk hero for leading the national team to the 1994 World Cup finals. AS Roma is also in the group.

On Thursday, Aston Villa crashed out of the Europa League losing its playoff tie against unheralded Rapid Vienna just three days after handing Liverpool an English Premier League defeat.

In its second-leg tie, Martin O'Neill's team was undone by striker Nikica Jelavic grabbing a crucial away goal 14 minutes from time.

A James Milner penalty and a second-half strike from John Carew had handed Villa a 2-1 aggregate lead and it was well on course for yesterday's group stages draw. But Jelavic, who had also scored in the first leg, had the final say, making the English side rue a first-half penalty miss by Ashley Young.


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