Neilson eyes ‘phenomenal’ journey to Europa League group stages

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson. Picture: SNS Group
Hearts manager Robbie Neilson. Picture: SNS Group
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Robbie Neilson is targeting what he believes would be a “phenomenal” achievement for Hearts by reaching the group stage of the Europa League this season.

The Tynecastle club are eagerly awaiting today’s draw at Uefa headquarters in Nyon for the first and second qualifying rounds of the tournament.

Hearts, back in European competition for the first time since 2012, enter at the first round stage and must negotiate four qualifying ties if they are to meet manager Neilson’s ambitious aim.

“We want to try to get into the group stages, as all teams do,” said Neilson.

“It is very difficult for Scottish teams to get through. Ourselves and Aberdeen will need to come through four rounds to get there and every one will be difficult. It is a tough ask but it’s one we want to try and get to.

“It would be phenomenal to get there, to be honest with you, especially when you look at the different budgets of teams across Europe.

“I was over in Bratislava a couple of weeks ago and the team I visited there had a £12 million budget. People think these are just teams from wee countries. But they are some huge teams from huge countries.

“Those are the kind of teams you are competing against. So for any of the Scottish teams to get to the group stage would be massive in terms of prestige and the tough work it requires.”

Hearts and Aberdeen are both seeded in the first qualifying round draw. Among their most testing possible opponents are Bulgarian side Slavia Sofia, Hungarian outfit MTK Budapest and Ordabasy Shymkent, of Kazakhstan, the latter providing the longest duration of travel.

More logistically convenient potential opponents include the Welsh trio of Bala Town, Llandudno and Connah’s Quay, Northern Irish pair Cliftonville and Glenavon, League of Ireland side Cork City and Gibraltan minnows Europa.

“It’s exciting, something different,” added Neilson. “We need to go and prepare for teams we don’t know. Generally, in Scotland, you play each other four, five or six times in a season. You know each other.

“In Europe, it will be a quick turnaround between ties. You have to travel and prepare properly and it is all good experience.

“Potentially, we have a really good team here. But we have to work hard. The players have to be right on the night and we need the backing of the fans to get as far as we can in Europe.

“The first round is hard and the second round is harder. It stays that way all through to the group stage.”

The first leg of the first qualifying round for Hearts and Aberdeen is 30 June, with the return fixtures the following week.

Scottish Cup winners Hibernian will enter the tournament in the second qualifying round, with the first leg of those ties on 14 July. Neil Lennon’s men will be unseeded and possible opponents include Belgian side Genk, Slovenian Cup winners Maribor, Austria Vienna, Serbian Cup winners Partizan Belgrade and Hajduk Split, of Croatia.

Celtic will also discover their Champions League second qualifying round opponents today. The first leg of what will be new manager Brendan Rodgers’ first competitive fixture in charge of the Scottish champions will be on 12 or 13 July.

Celtic will be seeded, with their possible opponents including Swedish champions IFK Norrkoping, Ferencvaros, of Hungary, Irish champions Dundalk, Zalgiris Vilnius, of Lithuania, and Northern Irish champions Crusaders.