THE objectives for Scotland’s representatives in Europe have required to become hideously modest. If more than a solitary side from this country continues to have an active interest in cross-border competition beyond July, it will make for a decent showing in the forthcoming season. Though, in fairness, recent campaigns have had their moments in, eh, the middle of summer.
The fates potentially awaiting Celtic, Aberdeen, St Johnstone and Inverness Caledonian Thistle will be given some clarity by the first and second qualifying round draws for the Champions League and Europa League that will take place at UEFA’s headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, tomorrow. The governing body operates a loose form of regionalisation for these early culls. The purpose is to minimise the costs many minnows will incur through all-too-brief samplings of the much-vaunted competitions.
‘Negotiating a path to the group stages is a must for Deila’
Ronny Deila has better hope for a contrasting experience with Celtic. The Norwegian endured a hellish start to his time in Scotland as his team tanked twice in the Champions League qualifiers last season: a reprieve earned courtesy of an administrative muck-up by a Legia Warsaw side that beat them 6-1 on aggregate was then squandered against Maribor. Even with his subsequent title and League Cup success, negotiating a path to the group stages is a must to give Deila’s tenure a lasting credibility.
In such terms, tomorrow’s draw for their second-round qualifiers entry point that will bring ties on 14-15 July and the following midweek, are not where any issues should arise. In the Champions’ route that shields them from top-ranked nations, a seeded Celtic are likely to be paired with opponents from the British Isles or the closer parts of Northern Europe. Into that bracket should come Irish champions Dundalk, The New Saints, who hail from Wales, Icelanders Stjarnan FC, CS Fola Esch of Luxembourg and possibly Estonians Levadia Tallinn. This assumes that The New Saints and Levadia emerge unscathed from contesting the first round, of course.
In the past two years, Celtic have accounted for KR Reykjavik and Cliftonville at this stage, beating the pair home and away without conceding a goal. The real European tests for Deila’s men will arrive in August. How Aberdeen, St Johnstone and Inverness would love to be saying the same in a month’s time.
With Scotland the 23rd-ranked nation of the 54 involved in the Europa League, Aberdeen and St Johnstone must start at the very beginning where the qualifiers are concerned. That means ties on 2 July and 9 July, for which the pair are at least seeded.
Republic of Ireland sides Cork City and University College Dublin, Glenavon and Glentoran from Northern Ireland and Welsh teams Airbus UK Broughton, Bala Town and Newtown would appear to fit the criteria for their likely opponents to kick off their European excursions.
In recent seasons Aberdeen and St Johnstone have harvested some welcome coefficient points by scoring notable successes. It has to be hoped they will have enough about them to make it through to the mid-July second qualifying round, where they will be unseeded along with Inverness.
Should that be the case, then the degree of difficulty rises several notches. The next batch of qualifiers, to be played on 16 July and 23 July, could pit any one of the Scottish teams against West Ham, for instance. That pairing would make for a memorable European debut for Inverness. Among the 33 ties that will drawn in Nyon tomorrow for this stage, the regional element ramps up the potential for visits to these parts from such as Danish pair FC Copenhagen and Brondby, Swedes IF Elfsborg, FH Hafnarfjordur of Iceland and a certain Rosenborg.
A reuniuon with the Norwegians for St Johnstone would bring back sweet memories for Tommy Wright’s men. They demonstrated they are no lightweights at this level by ousting the Norwegian seeds two years ago. Saints did likewise in defeating Swiss club FC Luzern last summer.
Yet, if Scotland is to start the climb towards a country ranking that would restore a fifth representative to European competition, spare the nation’s title holders three rounds to reach the Champions League group stages, or even just negate the need for Scottish teams to be playing European ties in the opening days of July, the nation’s continental combatants must consistently be ousting seeds from the Europa League qualifiers.
In the middle of the last decade Scotland was tenth in the UEFA pecking order, thanks to Celtic and Rangers both competing in the Champions League group stages, and frequently having continental involvement beyond Christmas. The naysayers predicted the country could drop into the mid-30s with no Rangers. Instead, though, Scotland has moved one place up the rankings in recent seasons. Indeed, last season the co-efficient points total was the second highest for seven years.
That was because Celtic progressed from the Europa League group stages – wins and draws claimed in that being worth the same as such outcomes in the Champions League – while St Johnstone and Aberdeen performed creditably in the qualifiers. Only Motherwell have proved a consistent letdown in the business of accumulating co-efficient points over recent seasons.
Yet, the predicament in which Scotland finds itself is best illustrated by Aberdeen’s European sortie last season. In winning in Netherlands to oust seeds FC Groningen, Derek McInnes’s men produced one of the great European away performances by a Scottish club in recent times. However, for the third-round qualifier that success earned, they were drawn against a Real Sociedad side that beat them home and away. There was no shame in losing to a team from one of the big five nations in such fashion.
The shame is that, for the foreseeable future, there appears no prospect of a Scottish club other than Celtic reaching the group stages of European competition. And without the Parkhead club receiving such assistance, Scotland cannot mount a serious push up the rankings.