By: Grant Fisken
It may only be just over 40 days since Sevilla lifted the 2014/15 Europa League trophy in Warsaw, but we are already halfway through the first qualifying round of the 2015/16 competition, with an incredible 21 rounds of matches left before the final in Basel next May. You may probably need an atlas to try and locate most teams at this stage of the tournament, but as Norwegians Tromso proved in 2013/14 it is not impossible to make it through to the group stage from the opening round.
The team most likely to repeat that feat is English side West Ham United. New manager Slaven Bilic has not even felt the need to take charge of their tie against Andorran minnows FC Lusitanos. Their 3-0 first leg win has all but assured them of a place in the next round. The potential tie of the round involves Go Ahead Eagles, one of the other teams to earn a place in this season’s Europa League via the fair play ranking in their home country. The Dutch team will travel to Budapest level at 1-1 against Ferencvaros, the winners of the 1965 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (precursor to the UEFA Cup).
Another team with European pedigree locked at 1-1 from the first leg are 1983 European Cup Winners Cup victors Aberdeen. Niall McGinn scored their away goal in Macedonia against FK Shkendija, and will be confident of finishing the job at Pittodrie. Things do not look so bright for Scotland’s other representatives at this stage St. Johnstone. They trail 1-0 after the away leg against Euro debutants Alashkert. The Armenian side are as high as 8/1 to win the second leg, with the draw as big as 4/1, which could be the value bet of the round considering the Scottish side are winless in their last six European home matches.
Some of the magic of Wales’ form at international level may be filtering down to their club sides. With The New Saints already through to the second qualifying round of the Champions League, Newtown could join them in the same stage of the Europa League. They will head to Malta to defend a 2-1 first leg lead against Valletta, with the winners facing FC Copenhagen in the next round. Prospects are bleaker for Airbus UK and Bala Town who both trail 3-1 versus Lokomotiv Zagreb and FC Differdange respectively.
Two Finland v Sweden ties also catch the eye from last week’s first legs. Both the matches between VPS and AIK, and Lahti and Elfsborg are level at 2-2 after the matches in Finland. Both Swedish teams will be expected to progress with home advantage and two away goals, but the rivalries between the two countries can never be underestimated. For both Finnish teams to qualify you can get a double of more than 66/1.
One first qualifying round match already complete saw Shamrock Rovers beat Luxembourg’s Progres Niederkorn 3-0 on aggregate. The Irish team, on the verge of signing former international Damien Duff, will be hoping for a repeat of their dream run to the group stage in 2011/12.