For Europe’s elite clubs, the continental competitions won’t kick into gear for another couple of months. For dozens across the UEFA confederation, the road to the group stages of the Champions League and Europa League begins this week (for a handful of clubs, it has already started or even ended). Among those entering the fray over the coming days are four representatives from the League of Ireland. Cork City partake in their first Champions League qualifier since 2006, while Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers and Derry City all enter the Europa League preliminaries, the former two dreaming of returning to the group stage and rekindling precious memories of recent years. It’s a long route to that hallowed juncture, though, with multiple rounds to be navigated for all the Irish entrants. Here, we assess each team’s chances of making it past the first hurdle.
Cork City v Legia Warsaw
As an unseeded team, Cork were always going to be underdogs against whoever they drew, but they certainly could have had easier opposition than the Polish champions. It was only two years ago that Legia were in the Champions League group stage, where they claimed a famous draw against holders and eventual winners Real Madrid, having eliminated Dundalk in the play-off round. Legia’s squad contains a handful of experienced Polish internationals who will be eager to put their miserable World Cup behind them, including Michal Pazdan and Artur Jedrzejczyk, and most of their squad has ample experience at European level. The most recognisable name is that of Eduardo, the veteran striker who was with Arsenal a decade ago.
Cork go into Tuesday’s first leg at Turners Cross off the back of two disappointing league results, losing away to leaders Dundalk and then dropping their first home points of 2018 against Shamrock Rovers. The game might clash with the World Cup semi-final of France v Belgium, but you can be sure that the Cross will be rocking for the visit of Poland’s finest. The Leesiders have waited a dozen years to be back on this stage and they will want to relish every moment. In all probability, though, they will most likely need to win the home leg and keep a clean sheet to harbour genuine hopes of progression.
The consolation this year is that if Cork are beaten, they will drop into the third qualifying round of the Europa League, as this is the first time that clubs knocked out of the first Champions League qualifying round will benefit from a repechage. Indeed, the losers of this tie will be the lucky team given a bye to round three given that there is an uneven number of clubs in the second Europa League qualifying round. Unless there is a massive shock, that is the route which John Caulfield’s men will be taking in August. If they can upset the odds and topple Legia, they will face the winners of the tie between Spartak Trnava and Zrinjski Mostar.
Levadia Tallinn v Dundalk
As current league leaders and Champions League qualifying participants in the three previous seasons, Dundalk are Ireland’s best hope of progression in Europe this summer. They will not have been displeased with this draw, which sees Levadia visit Ireland for the second season in a row. At this stage 12 months ago, they came up second best against Cork City. They are currently third in their domestic league, three points off leaders Nomme Kalju.
Unsurprisingly, Levadia’s squad is made up predominantly of Estonian players, none of whom are instantly recognisable outside of their homeland. Midfielder Pavel Marin is their main creative source, with Ukrainian striker Roman Debelko their likeliest goal threat. Dundalk certainly have the stronger line-up on paper and their options were recently bolstered by the return of Oriel Park favourite Patrick McEleney from the English leagues.
Stephen Kenny’s men should have too much for Levadia and, if they progress, they will meet Cypriot side AEK Larnaca in the second qualifying round. In a remarkable coincidence, Cork beat Levadia at the first hurdle last summer before meeting (and losing to) AEK in round two.
Shamrock Rovers v AIK Solna
Not the easiest draw for the Hoops, but certainly not the worst they could have received either. AIK are experienced campaigners on the European stage, although they haven’t been in the group stages of the Europa League since 2012. Also, they will be without star player Sebastian Larsson for at least the first leg of this tie as the ex-Sunderland midfielder has been involved for Sweden at the World Cup. In his absence, Norwegian international Tarek Elyounoussi is the team’s dangerman.
Like Shamrock Rovers, AIK are also in the middle of their domestic season. After 13 games they are top of the Swedish league, climbing to the summit at the weekend with a 4-1 hammering of Trelleborg to maintain their unbeaten start to the campaign. A succession of draws prior to that result, though, have prevented them from accumulating a bigger lead.
Stephen Bradley’s men have improved of late and the squad has been boosted by the recent signings of Dylan Watts and Aaron Greene but the team remains horribly inconsistent. Goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu, still only 16, made headlines at the weekend with his penalty save against Cork City. If he is chosen to start against AIK, this will be a real step up for him and a tremendous show of faith from his manager. It’s a tie that really could go either way but it’s hard to trust the Hoops and I think they might be edged out by their Swedish opponents. The winners of this tie will go on to face either Cliftonville (raising the prospect of an all-Irish clash) or Nordsjaelland (with the possibility of a Scandinavian derby).
Derry City v Dinamo Minsk
Derry have probably been handed the toughest draw of the three Irish representatives in the Europa League qualifiers, coming up against a Dinamo Minsk side who are consistent European participants and have twice been in the Europa League group stage since 2014, including a famous win away to Fiorentina.
Dinamo are second in their domestic league and again look set to be the best of the rest after the country’s dominant force BATE Borisov. Their squad is devoid of any household names, although one man worth watching is attacker Uladzimir Kvashchynski, their leading scorer domestically.
Derry’s form in recent weeks hasn’t been great, with four defeats in their last six, although they did pick up a hard-fought home win over Limerick last Friday. The firepower of Rory Patterson and Rory Hale will be key to their hopes of progression, which will probably need a win at The Brandywell on Thursday to be maintained.
Although the Belarusians don’t appear to be the most fearsome of opponents, their greater experience at this level could swing the tie in their favour, especially with the Candystripes’ defence proving rather porous so far this season. The prize for the winners is a round two meeting with either Dinamo Tbilisi or Dunajska Streda.