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Wednesday, 27 July 2016 15:23

WEXIT?

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THURSDAY 21st JULY - Belle Vue, warm, dry.
GAP CONNAH'S QUAY 1 FK VOJVODINA 2 (UEFA Europa League, 2nd Qualifying Round, 2nd leg)
The fifth match of my annual July European travels, and before a ball is kicked, almost certainly the last this year. Already this week TNS have lost in Cyprus, leaving only Connahs Quay flying the flag. They only trail 1-0 from the away leg in Serbia last week, having held out for 86 minutes and finally conceded a deflected goal, but it's hard to see them preventing the talented visitors from scoring here in the home leg. But we travel in hope.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016 15:17

ROLE REVERSAL

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TUESDAY 12th JULY - Park Hall, mild and dry
THE NEW SAINTS 0 APOEL NICOSIA 0 (UEFA Champions League, 2nd Qualifying Round, 1st leg)
A return to Oswestry after the Saints' first round win, but a very different match in prospect. Thankfully, it's a very different kind of day too, no approaching rainstorms. Just an approaching giant of European football, serial Cypriot champions Apoel, with a team stuffed with international players. It's clear TNS will face a very real role reversal compared with their games against Tre Penne.

And, of course, Craig Harrison's game plan is very different for this tie. TNS are cautious, well-organised and wary of the opposition, who demonstrate that they have plenty of skill, co-ordination and pace. TNS reach half time at 0-0, just a couple of half chances to show for the 45 minutes, and some dangerous situations successfully defended.

The second half is the same: solid defending, frustrating the visitors, but little threat, the forward players Quigley and Brobbel mostly battling unsuccessfully for scraps. Unable to hold the ball up in their opponents' half, TNS face a never-ending succession of attacking waves. But the clock ticks down and the score remains 0-0.

A goal-less draw is a huge achievement for the Welsh champions, considering how much more experienced and powerful Apoel clearly are. The game plan is intact - for no away goal has been conceded, and TNS can go to Cyprus with all to play for. It's a slim chance, but one goal out there would be very interesting indeed.

Sunday, 10 July 2016 07:01

Cold Welcome in a Hot Country

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TUESDAY 5th JULY. San Marino Stadium, dry and humid.
S.P. TRE PENNE 0 THE NEW SAINTS 3 (UEFA Champions League, 1st Qualifying Round, 2nd Leg)

San Marino isn't the easiest place to get to from Cardiff. My journey for Tuesday evening's return fixture in the Champions League starts at 5.30 a.m. on Monday, and involves a taxi, flight to Milan, airport express transfer, a three hour train journey to Milan, and a bus to San Marino. With an overnight stop in the handsome seaside city of Rimini, we finally arrive in San Marino on Tuesday morning.

San Marino city perches on top of a mountain, overlooking the rest of this tiny landlocked republic spread out in the foothills. It's a lovely place to while away most of Tuesday, and whilst sightseeing we keep bumping into the TNS official party. When we stop for lunch, the very friendly multi-lingual waiter guesses we're here for the game - he turns out to be a Tre Penne fan. I ponder the contrast - nobody in Oswestry town centre last week even seemed to know there was a game on. The home fan is sure his team will "lose heavily" tonight....  

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.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016 13:29

The Underdog Bites Again

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TUESDAY 28th JUNE - Park Hall Stadium, heavy rain.
THE NEW SAINTS 2 S.P. TRE PENNE 1 (UEFA Champions League, 1st Qualifying Round, 1st Leg)

It's not yet July, the Euro 2016 tournament is only just past the half-way stage. Wales are still in it, and almost everyone's focus is on matters in France. But the UEFA Champions League 2016-17 tournament starts today - the first largely overlooked steps on a road leading to the final in Cardiff next summer.

Welsh champions The New Saints came through the first qualifying round last year - quite comfortably in the end, after a tricky first leg away in the Faroe Islands. This year their opponents are from sunnier climes - S.P. Tre Penne of San Marino. This season, TNS have the home leg first, so an opportunity maybe to ensure the away game next week is pressure-free. At least, that's how I'm thinking as I head up the English border towards Oswestry. (If rest of article not visible, click READ MORE below)

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