The draws for the first and second qualifying rounds of both the 2015/16 Champions League and Europa League competitions took place in Nyon, Switzerland earlier on Monday.
There was a large Irish interest in the draw, with a total of five Airtricity League clubs involved in the draws – a record for the league.
Reigning champions and current league leaders Dundalk took their place in the draw for the Second Qualifying Round of the Champions League, a draw which resulted in a tie against FC Bate Borisov of Belarus, the toughest draw for any of the five Irish sides.
Meanwhile, in the Europa League, the four sides involved, Cork City, St. Patrick’s Athletic, Shamrock Rovers and UCD (through the fair play league) have been drawn against sides from Iceland, Latvia and Luxembourg.
Stephen Kenny’s men face the daunting task of taking on Belarus champions BATE Borisov. The Belarusian side last season sealed their ninth consecutive league title and with 11 matches played this in the league so far this season, are already 8 points clear of second placed Dinamo Minsk, conceding their first goal in a league match today, a game they won 2-1.
Kenny has faced BATE Borisov before in European competition, knocking them out of the 2003/04 Champions League First Qualifying Round, while he was manager of Bohemians. However, the Belarus side have only improved in Europe since then and have reached the group stage of either the Champions League or Europa League in 6 of the last 7 seasons. The high point of their involvements in group stages of these tournaments came in the 2012/13 Champions League, when they beat Bayern Munich 3-1. Bayern went on to win the Champions League that season, defeating Borussia Dortmund in the final at Wembley.
It will be a tough task for the champions, who are at home in the second leg and they will have to put in a performance in Belarus, similar to the performance that seen them beat Hajduk Split in the second leg of their tie in Croatia in last season’s Europa League if they are to stand a chance of progressing.
St. Patrick’s Athletic
Liam Buckley’s St. Patrick’s Athletic were seeded for the Europa League draw and will have to make a trip to the Latvian capital of Riga to take on Skonto FC in the First Qualifying Round.
Skonto last took on an Irish side in the 2009/10 Europa League, when they were defeated 2-1 on aggregate by Derry City. The Latvian side had qualified for the Europa League last season, after finishing second in their season last season. However, they were disqualified by UEFA due to financial problems.
Pats, on paper should progress to the next round but like Dundalk, they will be at home in the second leg, so a strong away performance, like the one against Legia Warsaw in Poland last season, will be needed. Should Liam Buckley’s men progress, they will face the winner of Debrecen (Hungary) vs FK Sutjeska (Montenegro) in the Second Qualifying Round.
Shamrock Rovers return to European competition for the first time since the 2012/13 Champions League, when they were knocked out 2-1 on aggregate by FK Ekranas of Lithuania.
Pat Fenlon’s side look to have got the easiest of the draws for the First Qualifying Round as they take on FC Progrès Niederkorn of Luxembourg. The Luxembourg side finished 4th in the top division of their domestic league last season, a place ahead of Jeunesse d’Esch, who Dundalk knocked out of the Europa League last season.
Rovers should progress and if they do, will take on the winner of FC Sheriff Tiraspol (Moldova) vs Odds Ballklubb (Norway).
John Caulfield’s Cork City have a tough but still very winnable task as they have been drawn against KR Reykjavík of Iceland.
The Icelandic side last season lost 5-0 on aggregate to Celtic in the Second Qualifying Round of the Champions League. They have had a bit more success in the Europa League, reaching the third qualifying round on two of the last four occasions.
They are no strangers to playing in Ireland either, having knocked Northern Irish side Glentoran out of the competition in both the 2010/11 and 2013/14 season. Reykjavík also played Shelbourne in the 2004/05 Champions League but were knocked out by the Dublin side on that occasion.
UCD went into this draw as one of two sides playing outside the top tier of their domestic league, the other being Go Ahead Eagles from the Netherlands, who like UCD, qualified for the Europa League through the Fair Play league.
UCD, like Shamrock Rovers, face a side from Luxembourg in the shape of F91 Dudelange. No Irish side has ever lost a game against a side from Luxembourg, something that the Students will be hoping to maintain. Dudelange have won their domestic league 11 times and are consistently in either the Champions League or Europa League every season. Their best season came in the 2012/13 season as they reached the Europa League Playoff, after being knocked out in the Third Qualifying Round of the Champions League.
No European game is easy, and that will be the case for UCD. If they do manage to progress, they are likely to face the huge task of Slovan Bratislava, who last season qualified for the Group Stage of the Europa League, should the Slovakians defeat College Europa of Gibraltar.
Gerard Grimes, Pundit Arena.