Just a quick preview blog ahead of The New Saints’ Champions League qualifier out in Slovakia tomorrow against Slovan Bratislava (5.45, S4C).
What better way would there be to put last week’s thoroughly disappointing Europa League qualifying results behind us, than to see TNS advance from the Champions League second qualifying round?
The Saints, fresh from wrapping up their third-straight WPL championship, will be aiming to use their domestic dominance as a platform for European success and boy, does the league need it.
Crushing home defeats which saw Aberystwyth Town and Bangor City limp out 9-0 and 8-0 on aggregate to opposition from the Republic of Ireland and Iceland, gave a stark and sobering reminder of the gulf in quality that awaits Welsh Premier League clubs, who’ve strived the season previously in order to qualify for Europe. Even the valiant efforts of Andy Preece’s well-prepared Airbus – narrowly beaten by Haugesund, 3-2 on aggregate – were overshadowed in the frustration of last Thursday’s results, as views on the standard of Welsh football and summer football were then vented late into the evening on social media.
An encouraging first-leg display out in Eastern Europe would give a well-timed lift to the current sense of doom and gloom, but The New Saints will be up against it.
TNS have progressed past this round just once, when four years ago they overcame Irish side Bohemians before losing out to Anderlecht, but seeing off the Slovakian champions could be equally as difficult as their two previous continental opponents, Helsingborgs (2012/13) and Legia Warsaw (2013/14).
The Saints will be hoping to remove an element of the surprise factor going into this qualifier after head-coach Carl Darlington travelled to the Slovakian capital to watch Slovan Bratislava’s recent 1-0 Super Cup win over Kosice. Marko Milinkovic, the scorer on that occasion, turned in two more goals on the weekend as the Serbian steered Slovan to a winning start in the league with a 2-1 victory.
A close game (or better!) at the 11,500 capacity Paseinky Stadium would keep the tie alive ahead of the home-leg which TNS will play at Rhyl’s Belle-Vue, next Tuesday.
A one-sided defeat to the Welsh Premier League’s runner-away champions however, will lead to further calls for switching the calendar to summer football, with many enviably noting the success that the League of Ireland is enjoying in terms of positive European results.
The tide appears to be slowly turning a favour of such a move but it remains a gamble which would require complete restructuring of the Welsh system.
KEY POINTS FOR TNS
Steve Evans and Alex Darlington returning – Key members of the Saints’ side who both missed most of last season through injury. Returning to fitness this summer, do Craig Harrison and Carl Darlington opt for Evans’ leadership and experience, and Darlington’s ability to open up teams?
Sam Finley – The best player in the WPL, this European campaign could be Finley’s swansong in a TNS shirt. The Saints will be hoping he can affect the game with his ability but a challenging environment will test his temperament.
Self-belief – If you watched the Welsh Cup final, you wouldn’t have failed to see the self-belief that oozes from the TNS squad. They will not give in and will plug away until the end. It is essential they can keep this intact.
Spoilt for striker choice – With Michael Wilde and Greg Draper in their ranks, TNS have two genuine goalscorers to opt from for their favoured 4-2-3-1 approach. I expect Wilde to start but should things not work out, Draper is an equally competent option.
Feel free to share your predictions and thoughts on TNS’ European tie in the comments section or contact me on Twitter @1matthewburgess, where I’ll re-tweet your views.