The second week of July means the beginning of European competition for dozens of clubs across the continent, including four representatives from the League of Ireland. The Hollywood names might not be in Champions League or Europa League action for another couple of months but the qualifying rounds will begin to take shape over the next two weeks.
Of the Irish participants, Dundalk are back in the Champions League after missing out last season, while Cork City return to the Europa League along with Dublin duo Shamrock Rovers and St. Patrick’s Athletic. The participation of the latter in Europe was not without controversy after Waterford, who had finished fourth in the Premier Division last year, were later ejected due to the club being in existence in its current guise for less than three years, thus making it ineligible for UEFA competitions.
We preview each of the Irish clubs’ upcoming European assignments and assess their chances of progressing to the next phase of their respective qualifying competitions.
Dundalk v Riga FC
Having come up against illustrious opponents in BATE Borisov and Rosenborg in previous Champions League qualifying campaigns, Dundalk appear to have a much easier draw this time around against the Latvian champions, who were only founded in 2014 and won their first league title last year. They are currently top of the Latvian Virsliga by four points, even though their top scorer Darko Lemajic has only five goals so far this season. Their squad has an assortment of Latvia internationals, the most prominent name being Arturs Karasauks.
After a slow start to the season by their standards, Dundalk are looking good to retain their Premier Division title, retaining their eight-point lead on Shamrock Rovers at the weekend despite the concession of a last-gasp equaliser away to Derry City. That result ended a two-month sequence of nine consecutive victories for the Lilywhites, for whom Pat Hoban has been in prolific form this year with 12 goals, five ahead of next highest scorer Michael Duffy.
It will be a significant evening on Wednesday for Dundalk manager Vinny Perth, who leads them into a European game for the first time. Victory in the first leg at Oriel Park will be expected for the seeded home side against the competition debutants, with the winners playing either Partizani Tirana or Qarabag in the next round. The Irish champions have a very strong chance of advancing after finally getting a favourable Champions League draw.
Cork City v Progres Niederkorn
Cork City will view the Europa League qualifiers as a welcome distraction from their torrid domestic season. New manager Frank Kelleher has so far overseen two goalless draws against Finn Harps and Bohemians, stretching the Leesiders’ winless run to seven matches since beating UCD in May. Already their league campaign is petering out to a tame conclusion, with the relegation zone firmly in the distance but the European places virtually unattainable, leaving them to rely on winning the FAI Cup to get back into continental action for 2020.
Cork face a team who have already come through one round of qualifying, Luxembourg’s Progres Niederkorn edging past Cardiff Metropolitan University on away goals. They faced Irish opposition in the Europa League qualifiers in 2015 when losing to Shamrock Rovers, although they pulled off a major shock two years later when knocking out Rangers. Ironically, Steven Gerrard’s side will likely provide the opposition for the winners of this tie in the next round, assuming they get past St. Joseph’s of Gibraltar. Perhaps a Glasgow team will come to Cork after all, with Celtic avoiding a trip to Turners Cross by beating Rosenborg last year.
Of course, the Leesiders will have to put any thoughts of a meeting with Rangers to one side and focus on Niederkorn first. Their best-known player is captain Sebastien Thill, one of three brothers who play for Luxembourg’s national team and scorer of the goal that knocked out Rangers in 2017. Cork should have enough to progress but can be thankful for drawing one of the weaker teams in the qualifiers, given their abject season so far.
Brann v Shamrock Rovers
Another trip to Scandinavia awaits Shamrock Rovers, who were eliminated by Sweden’s AIK Solna last season. This time they face Norwegian opposition in Brann, who are currently fifth in their 16-team domestic league. They were last in the Europa League qualifiers two years ago and, despite having a rich history in Norway, are playing in Europe for just the second time in a decade.
They are not the most fearsome of opponents, with their top scorer this season only on four goals – and that is a centre-back (captain Vito Wormgoor). Veteran striker Azar Karadas, now 37, was on loan at Portsmouth during the 2005/06 season.
The Hoops’ own form has been less than stellar, their outstanding start to the season now seeming a distant memory. Stephen Bradley’s side have just one win from their last five and squandered a host of chances in a 0-0 home draw against mid-table Sligo Rovers on Friday, missing the opportunity to reduce the gap on leaders Dundalk to six points.
This tie seems like a close call, with neither team pulling up any trees. If Rovers can avoid defeat in Bergen on Thursday, that would leave them in the box seat to go at least one round further than last year and set up a tie against either Kauno Zalgiris or Apollon Limassol.
St. Patrick’s Athletic v IFK Norrkoping
St. Pats’ delight in seizing upon Waterford’s misfortune to take their place in the Europa League was tempered by a tricky-looking draw against Swedish outfit Norrkoping. The Saints are having a solid if unspectacular season, meeting expectations with their current fourth-placed standing; and their form has improved of late, with three wins from four after a three-game winless run.
Harry Kenny has plenty of experienced European campaigners in his squad in Ian Bermingham, Brendan Clarke and Simon Madden, with Mikey Drennan the man most likely to trouble the Norrkoping defence. For the Swedish outfit, currently seventh in their domestic league, Jordan Larsson is the danger man. If the name sounds familiar, it should – he is the son of Celtic and Sweden legend Henrik Larsson. His team-mate Simon Thern also has a father (Jonas) who played for Sweden in the 1990s.
It’s far from an insurmountable task for the Inchicore side but they seem to have the trickiest tie of the three Irish teams in the Europa League qualifiers. If they advance past Norrkoping, they will meet either FK Liepaja or Dinamo Minsk in the next round.