Scottish football’s leading sides have learned who they will play in their opening European fixtures, with qualifying matches getting underway before the end of the month.
Such is the country’s standing these days that its clubs are required to enter earlier preliminary rounds than they often have in the past.
With that can come a step into the unknown and once again the draws have paired Scottish teams with sides who many supporters will be unfamiliar with.
So who have the Premiership’s top clubs been drawn against and what are their backgrounds? Andrew Dickson takes a look…
The Scottish champions will go into the Champions League qualifiers in the second preliminary round and will be optimistic of reaching the group phase again after playing Barcelona, Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach at that stage last season.
One team Celtic would perhaps have wanted to avoid on the way were Linfield, champions in Northern Ireland for a 52nd time last season, yet Brendan Rodgers’ side will travel across the Irish Sea if the Windsor Park outfit can come through a tie with San Marino’s La Fiorita first.
David Healy’s team won a treble last term and will be expected to see off La Fiorita. Coming from Montegiardino, a village of fewer than 1,000 people, they have lost each of the 10 European games they have played in the last five years and have just one goal to their credit in that time.
Beating the Sammarinese side would set up a tie with Celtic, something which would create much hype for a multitude of reasons. For starters, Healy spent a season and a half in the latter stages of his playing career with Rangers, Celtic’s Old Firm rivals, and he has three former Ibrox players – Roy Carroll, Andy Mitchell and Matt Clarke – in his squad.
Also of note is the backgrounds of both clubs. Celtic were founded in 1887 to help Irish Catholics in Glasgow and their fans remain proud of their heritage, while Linfield are a club with Protestant traditions and the draw has scheduled them to meet in Belfast on July 11 or 12, at the height of the marching season in Northern Ireland. The prospect of Celtic coming to play Linfield will mean security is extremely tight and could even see the tie moved for safety reasons, like Rangers’ trip to Dublin-based Shelbourne was in 1998.
Derek McInnes’ side are used to starting their season early by now but after three years of playing in the first qualifying round of the Europa League, they don’t start until the second stage begins on July 13. They will be up against either FC Ordabasy of Kazakhstan or Bosnian outfit Siroki Brijeg, who will play each other for the right to visit Pittodrie.
Ordabasy arguably hold the upper hand going into the tie given they are already 18 games into their season, which runs from March to October. Having finished fourth last year, the former Asian Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-finalists are currently third and just four points off the top of the table. This will be Ordabasy’s fourth campaign in the Europa League – and they have never gone any further than the second preliminary round.
Siroki Brijeg, on the other hand, finished seventh in last term’s Premijer Liga but qualified for Europe for the 14th time in 16 years by virtue of winning the Bosnian Cup on penalties after both legs against Sarajevo ended 1-0 to the away side. Having last won their league title 11 years ago, the Pecara Stadium side then faced Scottish opposition in the Champions League qualifying round but lost 3-0 over two games against Hearts.
Six years have passed since Rangers last played European football and in the time since they have gone into administration, been removed from the old SPL and worked their way back up to the top tier of Scottish football from what used to be the Third Division. As such, it is perhaps fitting they are playing a team called Progres on their return to continental competition.
Their opponents from Luxembourg – known in full as FC Progres Niederkorn – finished fourth in their league last season, a place behind the Fola Esch side Aberdeen lost to in an away game during last season’s Europa League before sneaking through 3-2 on aggregate. One of their key players is Ismael Bouzid, formerly of Hearts and Kilmarnock.
Much like the La Fiorita team which stands in the way of Linfield setting up a tie with Celtic, Niederkorn’s European record is poor and they have yet to win a game at that level. A 12-0 thrashing by Real Madrid in the 1978/79 European Cup stands as their worst aggregate result and they have lost 10 of their previous 12 matches against foreign sides.
Next up for Rangers if they advance are AEL Limassol or St Joseph’s. The Cypriots have more European pedigree, having reached the play-off round of the Champions League in 2012 and made the group stage of the Europa League a year later, beating Marseille 3-0 in their home game against them. More recently, they played Tottenham in the 2014/15 Europa League qualifiers but lost 5-1 on aggregate.
St Joseph’s are playing European football for the first time this season after finishing third in the Gibraltar Football League.
Taking part in the competition for the fifth time in six years, St Johnstone have still to reach the group phase of the Europa League and have only got through two of their six ties in that period. They will feel, however, they have a good opportunity to progress after what looks to have been a favourable draw.
The Perth side start against Lithuanians FK Trakai, a side playing in the tournament for the third year in a row and who finished second to Zalgiris Vilnius in their championship last season. Trakai, who were only promoted to A Lyga in 2014, are captained by former Hearts winger Deividas Cesnauskis. Coached by Oleg Vasilenko, their former boss is former Tynecastle striker Edgaras Jankauskas, the current Lithuania manager.
If St Johnstone get beyond Trakai, they will take on either Swedish side IFK Norrkoping or KF Prishtina. Kosovans Prishtina are making their European debut this season and will be underdogs against Norrkoping, who won the most recent of their 13 Swedish titles just two years ago. That success took them back into European football for the first time since 2000 but they lost in their first tie against Norwegians Rosenborg and will be looking to make up for that this time.