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Sunday, 28 June 2015 08:56

Four clubs carry Welsh hopes into Europe this week

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Two weeks after the final act of the 2014-15 Welsh season - the promotion play off in south Wales - the curtain went up on the 2015-16 season with the much-awaited UEFA Champions League and Europa League qualifying round draws. In between, in the absence of a proper close season, the summer solstice seemed to mark the changing of the football seasons too: as the days begin to shorten, thoughts turn to autumn and winter, but long before that we have some summer action in Europe coming up.

It's an unfortunate feature of the UEFA calendar that the smallest nations in its "family", those who contest these earliest rounds of the two cups, are given barely a week to plan the biggest games of their year, and arrange tricky overseas travel for parties of players and officials. UEFA can of course point to the six-figure distributions to all competing clubs as justification for the demands, but surely it's not unreasonable to ask for just another week or two between draw and action?

Fans too face the challenges of arranging trips into Europe at short-notice, so the days following the draws are typically involve a day or so of uncertainty about dates, venues and kick off times, followed by frantic searching for and booking the best travel options. It's only when all that is in place that we can start to assess our hopes and expectations for the four clubs representing us in Europe's premier club competitions.

A year ago, the Welsh Premier clubs had a disappointing time in Europe after tough draws, but this time round hopes are higher. The New Saints, shuffled by Champions League format changes into the very first qualifying round (along with just seven other European minnows), were seeded in the draw and face Faroese champions B36. If this is just about the most difficult trip, logistically, they could have received, the tie is surely one that the Welsh champions must be favourites to win. Anything other than an aggregate win will be a disaster for the Oswestry club, and indeed the Saints really need wins in both legs to build up their EUFA co-efficient score. Let's hope the second leg, at TNS's Park Hall ground on 7th July, is not too tense an occasion.

The Welsh Premier runners-up, Bala Town, face a trip to south-west Luxembourg to play Differdange 03. In their first European campaign, in 2013, Bala gave a good account of themselves against Estonian opposition and won their home leg before bowing out. They should be stronger now after their best-ever league placing, and will travel to central Europe for Thursday's game saddled with quite high expectations from WPL supporters. However, Luxembourg football is superior to that of Estonia, and Differdange have more experience on this stage, so we shouldn't get too carried away. Even so, it will be very disappointing if the Lakesiders do not return to Wales with the tie still alive. Back at home (in the second leg, to be played at Rhyl on 9th July) we're counting on them to preserve that unbeaten home record in Europe.

Third-placed in the Welsh Premier, Airbus UK Broughton are also inexperienced in Europe and have possibly the toughest opposition of the three Europa League entrants, in Lokomotiva Zagreb. Croatian clubs would generally be expected to overcome Welsh ones, but at least Lokomotiva are the weakest and least experienced of that country's representatives, having finished fourth, over 40 points behind the champions Dinamo, losing more games than they won. If they play to the best of their ability, Airbus might surprise people here, and it's not too unrealistic to hope for a good result in the first leg (at Bangor on July 2nd).

Newtown qualified rather unexpectedly via the WPL play-offs, and their reward is a tie against experienced European campaigners Valletta of Malta. Fifteen years ago Valletta met and beat Welsh champions Barry Town and they've had some recent wins in both competitions over the tiniest unseeded teams from San Marino etc., but their record overall isn't too terrifying. It's nevertheless a tough task for Newtown, and again much will depend whether the Robins can make a positive start in the first leg, at their own Latham Park stadium, on 2nd July.

In two weeks' time, we'll either be satisfied with a better campaign by our four clubs, or bitterly disappointing - there's unlikely to be any middle ground. If TNS progress, and we get at least two other wins on the night in at least one leg of the Europa League ties, we can probably consider 2015 to already count as a better year for Wales in Europe.

We're crossing our fingers and preparing for our coverage of the games: of course, it's impossible to be at all of them, with the Europa League games happening virtually simultaneously. The short-notice logistics and cost of a trip to the Faroes also means I can't follow our champions as they start out on their campaign. But we'll be covering three ties from the first two weeks of 2015-16 European action, and I hope we're back in travel-planning mode on Friday 10th July looking forward to some second qualifying round action.

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