A combination of the expansion of Uefa’s club competitions and Scotland’s declining co-efficient ranking has made earlier entry to the Champions League and Europa League par for the course in recent years.
To expand the golfing analogy, it is certainly a sobering thought that Celtic will be kicking off their latest bid for Champions League glory at least one day before the first ball is struck at The Open at Muirfield next month.
With Scotland having slipped to 18th place in the Uefa co-efficient table used for this year’s draws, the Scottish champions will now have to negotiate three qualifying rounds if they are to emulate last season’s feat of reaching the group stage of Europe’s elite tournament.
The success enjoyed by Neil Lennon and his players in making it to the last 16 of the Champions League, winning seven of their 12 games during a memorable campaign, provided a timely and much-needed boost for the country’s continental credibility. It was unable to prevent a further fall in the nation’s Uefa ranking, however, and Scotland will occupy 24th place in the list used for next year’s tournaments. Uefa compile the figures over a five-year cycle, so Scotland have now lost the significant points tally gathered in 2008 when Rangers reached the Uefa Cup final, Celtic made it to the last 16 of the Champions League and Aberdeen progressed to the knockout phase of the Uefa Cup.
In the ongoing absence of Rangers from European football, the onus is firmly on Celtic to halt the slump. But with all ranking points divided by the number of participating teams each nation has, they need some help. In recent years, it simply has not been forthcoming. Of the 21 European ties played by Scottish clubs other than the Old Firm in the past five years, just five of them have been won.
Motherwell, whose consistency in qualifying for Europe has been hugely impressive, racked up four of those victories, albeit against moderate opposition in the form of Welsh side Llanelli and Albanian outfit Flamurtari in 2009 and then Breidablik of Iceland and the Norwegian side Aalesund the following year. Hearts’ win over Paksi of Hungary in 2011 was the only other exception to what has been a depressing rule.
Last season typified the malaise as St Johnstone, Dundee United and Hearts all fell at their respective first hurdles in the Europa League, while Motherwell lost both their Champions League qualifier and subsequent Europa League play-off tie. In just nine days’ time, we will learn the initial task facing three of Scotland’s four European representatives for the forthcoming season when the first and second qualifying round draws for the Champions League and Europa League are made.
Celtic, who will be seeded throughout the qualifying process, will play the first leg of their second qualifying round tie on either 16 or 17 July. With Uefa splitting the draw into loosely-based geographical pots, there is the possibility of an all-British tie for Lennon’s men against Cliftonville from his Northern Irish homeland or Welsh champions The New Saints. Irish champions Sligo Rovers and Icelandic outfit Hafnarfjardar would also offer Celtic notionally stress-free passage to the third qualifying round, but there are also some unseeded dark horses, such as Hungarian champions ETO Gyor and Bulgarian side Ludogrets whom Lennon would probably prefer to avoid.
In the third qualifying round, Celtic’s possible opposition could include the team they defeated at the same stage last year, Finnish champions HJK Helsinki, along with Slovan Bratislava of Slovakia, Norwegian champions Molde and Slovenian title holders Maribor. Assuming Celtic make it to the play-off round, their place in the lucrative group stage could be barred by Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb, ambitious Polish title holders Legia Warsaw and Serbian champs Partizan Belgrade.
In the Europa League, Hibs and St Johnstone will both be unseeded in the second qualifying round draw on Monday week. The Easter Road club, back in Europe for the first time in three years, could face a trip to manager Pat Fenlon’s homeland to meet St Patrick’s Athletic. But there are no shortage of formidable teams Hibs and Saints could be paired with. Depending on how Uefa split the geographical pots for the draw, they include seasoned Champions League campaigners Rubin Kazan from Russia, highly-regarded Belgian side Standard Liege, Czech side Sparta Prague and Red Star Belgrade from Serbia.
If either Hibs – who report back to training on Monday – or Saints manage to win their first tie, they will be joined in the third qualifying round by Motherwell. The Fir Park club, in Europe for the fifth time in the last six years, will be unseeded and could face such luminaries as Sevilla, VfB Stuttgart, Udinese or St Etienne. English League Cup winners Swansea City are another seeded side in the third qualifying round.
24 June: Champions League and Europa League, 1st and 2nd qualifying round draws.
16/17 July: Champions League, 2nd qualifying round, 1st leg.
18 July: Europa League, 2nd qualifying round, 1st leg.
19 July: Champions League and Europa League, 3rd qualifying round draws.
23/24 July: Champions League, 2nd qualifying round, 2nd leg.
25 July: Europa League, 2nd qualifying round, 2nd leg.
30/31 July: Champions League, 3rd qualifying round, 1st leg.
1 Aug: Europa League, 3rd qualifying round, 1st leg.
6/7 Aug: Champions League, 3rd qualifying round, 2nd leg.
8 Aug: Europa League, 3rd qualifying round, 2nd leg.
9 Aug: Champions League and Europa League, Play-Off round draws.
20/21 Aug: Champions League, Play-Off round, 1st leg.
22 Aug: Europa League, Play-Off round, 1st leg.
27/28 Aug: Champions League, Play-Off round, 2nd leg.
29 Aug: Europa League, Play-Off round, 2nd leg.
29 Aug: Champions League Group Stage draw.
30 Aug: Europa League Group Stage draw.