by Matthew Burgess
At 12/1 outsiders, The New Saints are going to need to an upset of Connah’s Quay proportions if they are to upset Danish Superliga champions FC Copenhagen in their first-leg tie at Park Hall this evening.
In the aftermath of the Nomads’ famous and soon-to-be folklore win over Kilmarnock, Saints’ own unlikely comeback against Feronikeli has been a little overlooked.
The manner of Saints’ swashbuckling win in Kosovo was a coming of age moment for manager Scott Ruscoe’s team.
‘Having to find a way’ and ‘finding a way’ are two extremely different things, but TNS had the resilience and technical ability to breathe new life into their European campaign.
There is an all-too rare feel good factor emanating from Welsh domestic football right now – the successes of the clubs in European competition currently stands at three wins, two draws, and three losses.
That’s a clear improvement on some off the lacklustre return of results we’ve witnessed in some previous years and the top two tiers of the Welsh domestic game are undergoing a rebrand, which is part of a strategy to bring the second tier closer inline with the top division.
The good times continue to roll for The New Saints also.
Having not only booked themselves another money-spinning European tie by defeating Feronikeli and reached the second qualifying round of the Champions League, TNS have given themselves a guaranteed safety net of an additional four games.
The winners of this latest tie will advance to face Red Star Belgrade or HJK (Finland), the losers will drop down into the Europa League third round where they would play Vadur (Iceland) or the Bulgarians Ludogorets Razgrad.
The New Saints are, of course, familiar with Danish opposition having lost to Midtjylland 5-1 on aggregate last season.
Scott Ruscoe believes FC Copenhagen are a cut above, having finished comfortably ahead of Midtjylland in the Danish Superliga last season.
“We did well against Midtjylland across two-legs, certainly away, where we played well in some spells, but Copenhagen are one step above Midtjylland,” said Ruscoe.
“It’s an even harder task than last season. We are not worried about it, we will embrace it.”
With the knowledge of further European games already secured, The New Saints can indeed embrace their latest Danish test.
The team have galvanised themselves after coming through their tie against Feronikeli, battle-hardened and a little more streetwise from their recent experiences.
The New Saints will, at the very least, have the capacity to ask questions of FC Copenhagen, if not able to control the tie.
“The boys are looking forward to it – there’s a togetherness, a work ethic, there’s a team spirit so let’s enjoy the evening,” said Ruscoe, who revealed he is expecting to make changes to his team to face FC Copenhagen.
“We have a plan, we have a way of playing against Copenhagen, so there might be one or two that have to sit out and make an impact from the bench.
“That’s the way it is, that’s what we have gone with, that’s what we feel, but that’s not to say they can’t have an impact on the game.”
Blaine Hudson, whose absence was hard felt in the first leg against Feronikeli is ruled out by injury and the central defender is not expected back in training until early next week, which may put him in contention for the return leg.
It is unclear whether full-back Chris Marriott will return, meaning The New Saints are again reliant on their inexperienced centre-back pairing of Ryan Harrington (20) and Keston Davies (22) to give the team are a solid defensive platform.
The duo, who only arrived at the club this summer, looked unconvincing after being forced to play together in the first game against Feronikeli when Marriott was unable to continue. But the pair defied expectations in Kosovo, looking dependable and playing with a much-needed level of maturity in the heart of the Saints defence in Kosovo.
Ruscoe’s comments about making changes will again raise questions over striker Greg Draper’s role in the team.
Fellow striker Dean Ebbe, who came off the bench to score the goal that sealed last week’s victory, could be among those in Ruscoe’s thoughts to start against Copenhagen.
Draper, indeed, is a player with the ability to go on and ‘have an impact on the game’.
The New Saints prepare for this game with nothing to lose.