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Fan fervor assured at rare Champions League home games for Newcastle, Lens and Union Berlin

For their first home games in the Champions League in more than 20 years, Newcastle and Lens will walk out to rousing ovations in their famously noisy stadiums this week.

Union Berlin makes its Champions League debut in the borrowed 75,000-capacity Olympic Stadium that will be a raucous home in the competition for a team that played in the German third tier as recently as 2010.

Don’t tell fans at these three clubs the Champions League group-stage format that is being dumped next year became stale and predictable.

Newcastle, Lens and Union were nowhere near the debate when the European Super League was plotted, launched and failed in 2021 by club owners who took the Champions League for granted and craved extra riches and control running their own show.

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Exactly two years ago, Newcastle was still in a grim winless run in the Premier League relegation zone.

The Champions League survived the closed-shop Super League threat and now includes long-time absentees and a debutant that qualified on merit – fourth in the Premier League, runner-up in France’s Ligue 1 and fourth in the Bundesliga.

Newcastle will show Kylian Mbappé and Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday the atmosphere 52,000 create inside St. James’ Park.

Lens welcomes Arsenal on Tuesday to Stade Bollaert-Delelis where the capacity of 38,000 is bigger than the town’s population.

Union is using the Olympic Stadium – which hosted the 2015 Champions League final – because its intimate Stadion An der Alten Försterei (Stadium at the Old Forester’s House) is too small for home games in Group C, starting Tuesday against Braga.

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“A Champions League for all Unioners,” club president Dirk Zingler explained to club members. “We were guided by this idea and we will try to ensure that as many people as possible can afford these games too.”

The interim move takes the club from the former East Germany into the west of once-divided Berlin.

Napoli and Real Madrid will later visit Union, and the group favorites first meet Tuesday at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.

100th BIRTHDAY

Few club homes that are 100 years old still host Champions League games. Fewer still waited more than 60 years between staging games in Europe’s top club competition.

Royal Antwerp hosts Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday at the Bosuil Stadium on the site where the club has played since 1923.

There were 45,000 fans there in October 1957 — most of them standing on steep curved terraces – at the venue once known as “Hell of Deurne” when defending champion Real Madrid won 2-1 in a European Cup first-round, first-leg game.

Antwerp’s wait for a next home game ended in August in the qualifying playoffs. Just over 13,000 were there in the compact seated stands to see a 1-0 win over AEK Athens.

Bosuil is not the oldest stadium site seeing Champions League action this week.

Manchester United hosts Galatasaray on Tuesday at Old Trafford where it moved 113 years ago. Celtic welcomes Lazio on Wednesday to Parkhead where the Scottish champion has been playing for 131 years, since 1892.

SAUDI ARABIA vs QATAR

Newcastle vs PSG – their first meeting in European competition – is now a clash of nation state sovereign wealth.

The home team is 80% owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, and the visitors are wholly owned by Qatar Sports Investments.

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Manchester City’s majority ownership by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi makes it three state-owned teams in this 32-team Champions League. Qatar’s QSI has a near-22% stake in a fourth, Braga.

Newcastle was lifted in the Premier League by the Saudi takeover nearly two years ago. The 300 million pounds ($365 million) purchase price now looks a bargain.

REMATCHES

Erling Haaland scored five against Leipzig in March when Manchester City won 7-0 in the second leg of the round of 16.

On Wednesday, Leipzig hosts the defending champion who managed without Haaland’s scoring in a 3-1 win over Red Star Belgrade two weeks ago.

Inter Milan eliminated Benfica in the quarterfinals on its way to losing the final last season and hosts the Portuguese champion Tuesday.

OLD HAND PEPE

European soccer can unite the generations if Porto captain Pepe makes a historic appearance Wednesday against Barcelona.

At 40 years, 220 days old on Wednesday, Pepe can become the oldest outfield player ever to play in the European Cup or Champions League. Only a few goalkeepers, including Gianluigi Buffon, will be ahead of him in the record book.

When Pepe made his Champions League debut in September 2004, Barcelona’s new 16-year-old starlet Lamine Yamal was still almost three years from being born. Gavi was six weeks old and Pedri was approaching his second birthday.

Pepe played the full game two weeks ago as captain in Porto’s 3-1 win over Shakhtar Donetsk. Barcelona opened its campaign by beating Antwerp 5-0.

The current oldest outfield player in the competition’s 68-year history is AC Milan defender Alessandro “Billy” Costacurta. He played in a 1-0 loss at AEK Athens in November 2006 at 40 years, 211 days.

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer