- Associated Press - Friday, July 15, 2016

NYON, Switzerland (AP) - Exiled from its conflict-torn home city for a third season, Shakhtar Donetsk will start its quest to stay in the Champions League elite against Young Boys.

Shakhtar was drawn on Friday to host the Swiss league runner-up in the third qualifying round on July 26 or 27. The return match in Switzerland is the following week.

For the third straight season, “home” for Shakhtar is Lviv, more than 1,000 kilometers (about 650 miles) west of Donetsk, where conflict between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists have made the city unsafe.

“Can you imagine we don’t have our home, we don’t have our fans, we don’t have our stadium, we don’t have our training camp. We have nothing,” Shakhtar CEO Sergei Palkin told The Associated Press at UEFA headquarters.

Shakhtar has overcome the turmoil of being based in Kiev, and playing in Lviv, to play in the Champions League for the past two seasons. As runner-up in the Ukraine league for a second straight season, it must advance through two qualifying rounds to be in the 32-team group stage.

“It’s very difficult from a psychological point of view,” Palkin said of the club which has recruited only modestly despite selling two Brazilian stars, Douglas Costa and Alex Teixeira, in the past year.

Backed by billionaire owner Rinat Akhmetov, Shakhtar is as key to the identity of the mining region of Donbass and its people as Barcelona is to Catalonia.

“Their life is very, very hard now. Unbelievable problems,” Palkin said of the club’s fans. “To see their club playing it’s like a new breath of air. If anybody will tell us, ‘You will never return back,’ we will stop (playing).”

Shkahtar’s real home - the Donbass Arena, a 2012 European Championship host venue - has mostly survived the conflict and is an operations base for humanitarian aid.

“The stadium is good. We need one month maximum more or less to clean it,” said Palkin, though it is unclear when that might be.

The politics of Shakhtar’s and Ukraine’s situation in European soccer was again a factor in the draw made Friday. Shakhtar and Rostov were kept apart by a UEFA rule since 2014 blocking teams from Ukraine and Russia being drawn to play each other.

Rostov, an unheralded regional club in the competition for the first time, was paired with Anderlecht in the third qualifying round. Its reward for advancing could be a playoff against Manchester City, Roma or FC Porto.

In other pairings Friday, four-time champion Ajax was drawn with PAOK Thessaloniki, Fenerbahce will play Monaco and Sparta Prague will face Steaua Bucharest.

The first legs will be played on July 26-27, and return matches on Aug. 2-3.

In a separate qualifying draw for national champions, Olympiakos was drawn to play Sheriff Tiraspol or Hapoel Beer-Sheva. Sheriff and Hapoel will complete a second round series next week.

The winners advance to the playoff round, which will decide the final 10 places in the 32-team group stage which is drawn Aug. 25 in Monaco.

In the Europa League draw on Friday, West Ham was paired with Shakhtyor Soligorsk or Domzale, who are level at 1-1 in the second qualifying round.

Gent, which reached the round of 16 in the Champions League last season, plays Viitorul Constanta of Romania in the third qualifying round.

UEFA made both draws after observing silent tributes to victims of a deadly attack in Nice late Thursday.

Nice was a European Championship host city, and the French city’s team enters the Europa League at the group stage in September.


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