The draws have been made, the maps have been checked, and now Welsh football clubs are preparing for their summer stint in the sun. Matthew Burgess says the cards – as usual – are not stacked in the Welsh clubs’ favour, but one-game shoot-outs might yet enable the likes of Connah’s Quay and Barry Town United to make their mark.
Anticipating how Welsh clubs will fare in European competitions is generally a difficult summer task at the best times, yet the ongoing impact of the coronavirus on Welsh football only serves to muddy the waters further.
In football’s new normal, all qualifying rounds are to be decided over one game and ties could be hosted at neutral venues – or determined without a ball even being played – should Covid restrictions dictate.
Those qualified from Wales have been in training for less than a month, having been granted special dispensation to train with restrictive measures in place, while no date has officially been set for the start of the new domestic season.
In previous years, clubs who have looked well-functioning and dominant in the Cymru Premier have all too often regressed into producing laboured and error-prone displays on the continental stage.
But then there are some, like Connah’s Quay against Kilmarnock last season, for instance, who are able to produce performances better than anyone could have possibly anticipated.
Following the outcome of today’s latest UEFA draw, we could be poised for yet another Welsh-Scottish tilt as a trip to Aberdeen lies in wait for the winners of the qualifying round tie between NSI Runavik and Barry Town United.
Getting to the Faroe Islands will be one challenge for Gavin Chesterfield’s side ahead of their preliminary round qualifier – returning back with a win against an NSI side, who are mid-season in their domestic league, will be another.
The more optimistic will be hopeful that Barry’s fourth-place finish in the Cymru Premier will equate to them being able to hold their own against their Faroese counterparts.
Yet those weathered by Welsh club football’s previous shortcomings will gloomily recall last year’s disappointment, when after a home leg stalemate against Cliftonville, Barry were handed a 4-0 defeat in Northern Ireland.
Bala Town and The New Saints both enter the Europa League in the first qualifying round.
Not wanting to tempt fate, but the last time we played in Europe on 20th August, we beat BVSC of Hungary on penalties and went through to face Aberdeen in the UEFA Cup… https://t.co/0eDf9zQbhj
— Ian Johnson (@ianjamesjohnson) August 10, 2020
Home advantage might just give The New Saints the edge over MSK Zilina, although with the Slovakian season already underway, the draw represents a formidable test for last season’s Cymru Premier runners-up.
Bala, meanwhile, will travel to Malta looking to shake off an unwanted sequence of European results.
Despite establishing themselves as one of Welsh football’s most respected teams, Bala have struggled to make progress in Europe and have been eliminated by clubs from Estonia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and San Marino in recent years.
If they can overcome logistical and away-day difficulties, the Lakesiders can go into their tie against Valletta with a quiet confidence.
Valletta have previously been beaten in both legs by Newtown and with their domestic league not due to start for a month, Bala should be competitive.
And if Connah’s Quay gave Welsh football the feel-good story of last summer, how badly could we do with a repeat this year?
The Nomads will begin their campaign at the Cardiff City Stadium but will face a daunting task in the shape of Bosnian champions FK Sarajevo.
With their season already underway, Sarajevo will be a formidable opponent for Connah’s Quay but with their abrasive, never-say-die belief, it would be foolish to write off any team assembled by Andy Morrison.
If the Nomads are able to overcome that hurdle, then a trip to Belarus or Kazakhstan awaits them.
Failing that, Connah’s Quay would drop into the Europa League qualifying rounds, so there will be a Welsh interest in European football for the foreseeable future, at least.
The action begins in just over a week’s time.
UEFA Champions League first qualifying round
Connah’s Quay vs FK Sarajevo, 18th Aug
UEFA Europa League preliminary round
NSK Runavik vs Barry Town United, 20th Aug
UEFA Europa League first qualifying round
Aberdeen vs NSK Runavik/Barry Town United, 27th Aug
The New Saints vs MSK Zilina, 27th Aug
Valletta vs Bala Town, 27th Aug