A narrow first-leg deficit leaves The New Saints within touching distance of an extended European run. Tuesday night’s second-leg in Rhyl has an ‘all or nothing’ feel about it, as Welsh football holds its breath.
Last week’s UEFA draw added to the anticipation of Tuesday’s return leg at Belle Vue, Rhyl, with the winners of the TNS–Slovan Bratislava tie drawn against Moldovans Sheriff or Sutjeska of Montenegro (which Sheriff currently lead 2-0) in the Champions League third qualifying round.
Should TNS advance, they will again feel that they are on a competitive level with either of those sides and will also have the added bonus of dropping into the Europa League play-off round, should they be eliminated at that stage.
Better still and admittedly still a long way off, should TNS advance past Slovan Bratislava and the next round, they will be go into the Champions League play-off round where they will be a tie away from reaching the Champions League group stage, or at worst, a place in the Europa League group stage.
There is however, much to be done before we can even begin to consider the implications that would have on not just the club but the Welsh Premier League as a whole.
Although beaten, The New Saints will have left Slovakia having achieved their main objective to have kept the tie competitive for the home leg.
True, TNS rarely threatened the Slovan Bratislava goal last week but the Saints were able to keep themselves in the game, looking well-prepared, comfortable in possession and able to ride out spells of pressure from the hosts.
Bar the sporadic lapse in concentration, TNS looked well-drilled, fit and didn’t look out of place competing against the Slovakian champions.
Even the goal that settled the first-leg wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Paul Harrison will have been disappointed to have been beaten at his near post by the low finish of advancing full-back Erik Cikos, who had broken free to find space too easily.
Tuesday’s return leg calls for a different approach to last week’s defeat and in need of a goal, the Saints must show more attacking impetus as opposed to nullifying Slovan Bratislava. It is also vital that they can shut out the Slovaks, as an away goal at any stage for the visitors would virtually give them an unassailable lead.
The presence of injured Phil Baker was sorely missed in central defence in the first-leg and Craig Harrison and Carl Darlington must be hoping to be able to draft him back into the side. They must also mull over the decision whether to recall veteran Steve Evans into the back four after a lengthy injury lay-off has meant that the former Welsh international has not played a competitive game since last February.
I would like to see another of the returning TNS players to be given a start at Belle-Vue and if fit, Alex Darlington should be given more than his 46th-minute substitute appearance. The underrated Darlington is capable of linking-up midfield and attack, and is neat in possession with an eye for goal. His presence could give the Saints the spark that is needed to make the breakthrough.
I really hope that TNS can count on a packed Belle Vue to spur them on to victory. It is unfortunate that the club are having to play their home leg over an hour away from their Park Hall base and the Saints are, quite rightly, offering sensible reductions to season ticket holders and club members for tickets and travel but I fear that the club’s decision to price tickets at £20 could deter non-season ticket holders and local supporters in North Wales from showing their support. I sincerely hope I’m wrong on that one.
For full ticket information via the club you can click here.
Good luck once again to The New Saints. You can post your comments ahead of the game below or on Twitter @1matthewburgess