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Europe - A Heady Challenge for Irish League Clubs

Linfield, Glentoran and Coleraine prepare to do battle against the odds.

Linfield v Qarabag FK - UEFA Europa League - Play-off - First Leg - Windsor Park
Linfield’s Mark Stafford is congratulated by Shayne Lavery after opening the scoring in the home leg against Azerbaijan’s Qarabag last season. The Azeri champions went through on the away goals rule.
Photo by Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images

It doesn’t get any easier for Irish League clubs in Europe.

The much sought after spots and eagerly awaited ties have rarely brought much success for Northern Ireland’s club sides, but at least in the modern day there’s a pot of gold for the qualifiers.

All three representatives will have difficult ties, Glentoran and Coleraine await their fate on 9 August, the date of the Preliminary Round draw, while Linfield already know their’s and meet the champions of San Marino, Tre Fiori (Three Flowers), in Nyon the day previously.

While the Blues may fancy their chances in the Preliminary Round semi-final, there is likely to be a sterner test in the final. Kosovan champions Drita who won this preliminary tournament two years ago, are fancied to eliminate Inter Club d’ Escaldes (Andorra), an outfit making its Euro debut.

With the right level of preparation however, Linfield should be favourites to move into the 1st Qualifying Round, where they could meet the likes of Celtic, Qarabag, Red Star Belgrade and Irish champions, Dundalk, all seeded and European opponents from the past.

While it’s unlikely Linfield would progress if drawn against any of those four, there are potentially less difficult pairings in Sheriff Tiraspol, Suduva, Omonia Nicosia and Dinamo Tibilisi, no longer the formidable Soviet Republic club of the past. But again Linfield are unlikely to wear a ‘favourites’ billing against any of the seeded clubs.

Should the Blues exit at this stage, they will enter the Europa League at the 2nd Qualifying Round (where Rangers are likely to be seeds), two stages after Glentoran and Coleraine begin their quest.

Conor McMenamin in action for Glentoran during their last European appearance against MSK Zilina in 2015

The Glens and Bannsiders occupy two of the bottom five spots in the Europa League when it comes to club co-efficients, but have a realistic chance of progress. Ties at this stage of the competition, thanks to the pandemic, will only be one-legged and played behind closed doors. Normally home advantage could be telling, but with no fans present, it’s bound to be much less a factor.

The local clubs will face beatable opposition in any of the seeded teams, and although Lincoln Red Imps and the Torshavn clubs are probably most tricky and best avoided, they shouldn’t hold too many fears either for Northern Ireland’s representatives.

Also amongst the possible opposition are -

Engordany, an Andorran club who have never progressed further than the 1st qualifying round, and won aggregate ties only twice, each time against Sammarinese opposition

NSI Runavik, from the Faroe Islands, eliminated in recent seasons by both Linfield and Ballymena United. Runavik has never won a two-legged tie and have lost all 12 away games played in Europe.

Tre Penne of San Marino who have avoided defeat in only one of their 14 European ties played.

La Fiorita, also of San Marino, who have lost all eight of their away ties in Europe. They’ve also never scored a home goal in Europe in 8 attempts, only one of which didn’t end in defeat, a 0-0 draw v Linfield in 2017.

Action from Coleraine’s last European appearance two years ago, when Spartak Subotica were visitors to The Showgrounds.

Should either Glentoran or Coleraine progress to the 1st qualifying round, glamour levels in the opposition don’t much increase, but the standard does with Aberdeen, Malmo FF, Rosenborg, CSKA Sofia, Honved, and Lech Poznan all lying in wait. So too are clubs from the League of Ireland; Bohemians, Shamrock Rovers and Derry City.

It all depends however in the seedings. Unseeded clubs, and that could include the Irish trio, are not potential opponents for either Irish League club.