If you said at the start of this year that four League of Ireland clubs would be in UEFA competition qualifiers in late August, one would assume that the league was on course for a record number of clubs to participate in the group stages of said tournaments, adding to some great memories for Irish clubs on the continent.
Alas, we all know that the qualifying stages for the Champions League and Europa League are only starting this month rather than reaching their fairytale-realising or dream-dashing denouement, so there is still a long road to travel for the Irish quartet if they are to be playing European group stage football into the thick of winter.
Changes to the qualifying formats this year in order to reduce pan-European travel and run them off quicker to avoid a major backlog of games further into the season mean that, with the exception of the Champions League play-off rounds, all qualifying ties will be decided over one game rather than two.
Theoretically, that could benefit clubs from lower-ranked leagues such as Ireland’s, for the likelihood of them catching a more illustrious opponent on the hop over a single-leg tie appears greater than needing to better them over two games. The flip side, of course, is that one off-day could see them turned over by a team from one of Europe’s most obscure outposts.
Last week, the four League of Ireland clubs involved in Europe discovered their initial qualifying opponents for the upcoming qualifying rounds, and here is our guide to the ties that await and the Irish teams’ prospects of advancing in their respective competitions.
Dundalk v Celje
Dundalk will face Slovenian opposition in the first qualifying round of the Champions League but, as that country is not on the Irish government’s green list for travel, Budapest will stage the encounter. While the Lilywhites are seasoned campaigners in this competition in recent years, Celje are embarking on their first run in the tournament, having lifted a maiden league title this year.
Vinny Perth’s side certainly have the edge in terms of experience but their form since the resumption of the season has been poor, not winning any of their last four league matches and falling well adrift of pace-setters Shamrock Rovers. Therefore, they don’t enter their European clash in the greatest of nick, with the headlines from their 2-2 draw against Waterford dominated by John Sheridan’s provocative post-match comments.
Croatian striker Dario Vizinger is Celje’s main threat, with 23 goals and 12 assists last season, while attacking midfield schemer Mitja Lotrič also had a prolific 2019/20 and needs to be paid close attention by Dundalk.
The Lilywhites may have far more experience at this level but this tie is fraught with ‘banana skin’ danger. Their European know-how might get them over the line and into a second round tie, most likely with Norwegian champions Molde, but Celje could well be getting a wounded Dundalk at the perfect time. The match will be televised live on RTÉ this evening.
Shamrock Rovers v Ilves
The Hoops have a home tie against opponents from Finland and it’s one which looks for all the world like it will go in their favour.
Stephen Bradley’s men have been imperious either side of lockdown, having dropped only two points in the league and with a sizeable gap to the chasing pack. With the likes of Jack Byrne, Graham Burke and Aaron Greene in fine form, Rovers have every right to be eagerly anticipating their march into Europe.
Ilves came fourth in last year’s Finnish league and have only played once in Europe in the modern era, losing out to Slavia Sofia at this stage of the qualifiers two years ago. Their danger man is winger Eero Tamminen but they have a poor defensive record domestically.
With Shamrock Rovers flying and Ilves looking nothing special, this should be a straightforward affair for the Tallaght men, particularly with home advantage.
Fehérvár v Bohemians
Bohemians are off to Hungary on Thursday week for their first round qualifier against Fehérvár, with Keith Long’s side making the trip in a rude state of health.
Saturday’s win over Finn Harps moved Bohs to within four points of league leaders Shamrock Rovers, with the Gypsies boasting a 100% record since the resumption of football. Danny Grant was on target at the weekend, while the likes of Keith Ward and Danny Mandriou may also come to the fore in what is the club’s first foray into Europe since 2012.
Fehérvár, previously known as Videoton and MOL Vidi, were in the group stages of the Europa League two seasons ago. Second in their domestic league last season, this is their first action since the end of June, with the twin threat of Armind Hodžić and ex-Leicester man Márkó Futács up front capable of causing damage to Bohs. Winger Ivan Petryak is also a danger man for the Hungarian side.
Bohemians go into the match with plenty of confidence but, particularly away from home, this has the makings of being a very tricky tie for the Phibsboro men. It will take an excellent performance for them to get through.
Riteriai v Derry City
Derry City are off to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius to take on Riteriai on Tuesday week, with Declan Devine’s team a disappointing seventh in the league and struggling for consistency since the restart, dropping further points against Shelbourne at the weekend.
Their best results of late have come in away fixtures, though, having lost their last two at The Brandywell. Their squad is laden with League of Ireland experience with seasoned players such as Peter Cherrie, Colm Horgan, Mark McChrystal and Conor McCormack, although they lack the potent attacking presence of someone like Ronan Curtis.
Riteriai, formerly known as Trakai, have consistently been in the upper echelons of Lithuania’s top flight in recent years without winning a league title. This is their sixth successive year in Europe, while they troubled Partizan Belgrade in the second qualifying round last term before narrowly losing out. They are, however, bottom of a six-team league this year, with many clubs not meeting top-flight licensing requirements.
Derry may be inconsistent of late but they seem to have drawn one of the weakest teams in the first qualifying round. It’s a tie that the Candystripes are very capable of winning.