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Saturday, 02 July 2016 16:11

Nomads undefeated in Europe....

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THURSDAY 30th JUNE - Belle Vue, wet and cold
GAP CONNAH'S QUAY 0 STABAEK 0 (Europa League 1st Qualifying Round, 1st leg)

48 hours on, same train, same journey up the Welsh/English border. Today's destination Rhyl, whose ground is being used by Connah's Quay for their European debut against Stabaek of Norway. Out in Scandinavia, the Welsh Premier's other two Europa League entrants face Swedish opposition. Tough draws for all three, against clubs in the middle of their domestic seasons.

Rhyl has, in the past, hosted plenty of these games, and usually there's some evidence in the town that there's a match on. Not so today, and once again it seems the European Championships are occupying the minds of public and press alike, leaving these club games overlooked. Indeed, as the torrential rain lashes down on Belle Vue an hour before kick off, the ground is as quiet as I have known it for such a game. The weather again hardly helps, nor does the clash with the first Euro2016 quarter-final. Still, it could be worse - if it had been Wales playing their quarter-final in France tonight, there wouldn't be anyone here. Finally a queue briefly forms at the turnstile, as the small but noisy Stabaek contingent arrives.

The teams emerge with the downpour still at full force, Connah's Quay in red and Stabaek in blue. The visitors' line up is unexpectedly varied - an Indian goalkeeper, Africans from Ivory Coast and Ghana, an Albanian - and a Scottish manager. My initial impression is that it is a very young side indeed.

Of the three Europa League ties, I always suspected this could be the one where the Welsh side might get something. Stabaek are struggling in their domestic league, and in the opening minutes they are far from impressive here. The Nomads get the ball in the net twice, and although in both cases the whistle has gone for an infringement, it's an encouraging start.

Unfortunately the early promise isn't carried through, as the first half becomes a bit of a stand-off. Stabaek seem happy enough to pass the ball around without really threatening the Nomads' goal. They have to change keepers, Ivorian Sayouba Mandé replacing Indian Gurpreet Singh Sandhu who has suffered a hand injury. The home side struggle to create clear chances to test the new man, though one cross is close to being turned in. Half time arrives with no score, and not much excitement to cheer up a filthy dark night in north Wales.

The second half follows the same pattern. Stabaek passing the ball laterally, enjoying plenty of possession, occasionally shooting but without conviction. Connah's Quay sitting deep, allowing the passes to go back and forth in front of them. Occasional breakaways offer brief hopes, notably when Mike Wilde is set free with only Mande to beat, but the keeper smothers his shot. The final whistle is a relief, and both sides seem perfectly happy with the draw, even if it provided precious little entertainment.

I can't help feeling disappointed that Nomads aren't taking a lead to Norway. Many will see this as a positive result, and in a way it is, but it could have been so much better. Andy Morrison's post-match comments recognise this.

What might happen next week in the return? One possibility is that Stabaek will play differently - maybe field different players - and show a bit more quality. Another one is that Stabaek play more adventurously, and leave gaps that Connah's Quay can exploit. Whatever the Norwegians do, I'd like to think the Nomads will have learned from this, and will really go for it. I think it's perfectly winnable - not least because the game isn't being played at Stabaek's own ground - it's 118 km away in Fredrikstad! Probably even fewer will be in attendance there than tonight's 529, so the Nomads aren't going to be intimidated by a partisan crowd. We can only hope.

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