Journey to the Centre of the Europa League: Playoffs, first legs

The 2019/20 UEFA Europa League represents the 49th season of Europe’s secondary club football tournament and the 11th season since it was re-christened and reconfigured by now-fallen President Platini. Whatever happened to him?

Poland will host May’s grand finale, which at this early stage in proceedings remains just a faint dot on the distant horizon.

The long and arduous journey to Gdansk began with preliminary ties involving clubs such as Northern Ireland’s Ballymena United, Cardiff Metropolitan University and Campionato Sammarinese runners-up, La Fiorita, on June 27.

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Since, there has been a gradual filtering out of unfortunate contenders including League of Ireland representatives Cork City, Shamrock Rovers, Dundalk and St. Patrick’s Athletic; SPFL sides Aberdeen and Kilmarnock; plus big names from bygone continental campaigns: Levski Sofia, Hajduk Split and Sparta Prague.

Final hosts Lechia also perished in the second qualifying round – so traditional talk of a romantic run to a ‘home’ final has been prematurely extinguished.

This early-season sifting process, undertaken at a time when most other Europe-based footballers are occupied with sprinting over sand dunes or – perish the thought – having a hard-earned break from the relentless rigours of the modern game, has produced an intriguing set of playoff ties to contemplate.

Those sides emerging victorious from these two-legged tussles at the end of August will earn a place in the (relatively) lucrative group stage, which culminates just before Christmas.

The fixtures will be played on Thursday 22 and 29 August; the group stage draw taking place in Monaco on Friday 30th.

NIFL champions Linfield have been rewarded for their progress so far with a tie against their Azeri counterparts, Qarabag.

David Healy’s side aim to take the initiative at Windsor Park against a well-resourced squad replete with a substantial smattering of Spanish and Brazilian footballing nomads.

“We’ve benefited from an attacking style so far so, although Qarabag might be a step-up, I don’t see why we should change that,” said Healy, on the back of impressive wins against HB and FK Sutjeska in the previous rounds.

Qualification for the group phase would be unprecedented, earning the Belfast club at least £4 million in UEFA prize money, but theirs is an uphill task against an experienced side who were unfortunate to drop out of Champions League qualifying to APOEL last week.

Fellow Champions League dropouts Celtic must pick themselves up off the canvas to entertain Sweden’s AIK, as their Glasgow rivals Rangers face an awkward match-up against Ekstraklasa runners-up Legia Warsaw.

Celtic’s capitulation against Cluj has badly shaken optimism at Parkhead and they face a side which are in a rich vein of form domestically (although unexpectedly lost at the weekend).

The Swedish champions are a somewhat ageing team – featuring ex-Birmingham City and Sunderland man Seb Larsson (34) plus mid-thirtysomethings in both central defence and attack – though boast an exciting goalkeeping prospect in 22-year-old Oscar Linner.

In Warsaw this week, Legia’s renowned ultras – not always on the best of terms with the suits at UEFA – will provide a menacing reception for Rangers fans and players alike.

Spanish striker Carlitos and Montenegrin winger Marko Vesovic are among the main threats to Steven Gerrard’s side making the group stage for a second successive season – which would be a considerable marker for the progress made under his leadership.

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Recently resurgent Antwerp, of Belgium, take on Moneyball-adherents AZ Alkmaar.

Authors of a colourful history in Europe during the 1970s and 80s, AZ are now captained by ex-Aston Villa and Feyenoord stalwart Ron Vlaar and recently signed Southampton’s Jordy Clasie for a nominal fee, but ambitions are ultimately restricted by the policies of one-time New York Yankees infielder and club general director Robert Eenhoorn (incidentally ‘eenhoorn’ is Dutch for ‘unicorn’).

Since suffering relegation 15 years ago, 1993 Cup Winners’ Cup finalists Antwerp have spent years in the wilderness.

However, following eventual promotion back to the Belgian top flight in 2017, their trajectory has continued upwards: culminating in European qualification last term.

Under the aegis of itinerant coach Laszlo Boloni, the current squad features former Standard Liege stopper Sinan Bolat and journeyman forward Dieumerci Mbokani, who accrued a wealth of continental experience in productive spells at Standard Liege, Anderlecht and Dynamo Kyiv, though failing to thrive at Norwich or Hull City.

On the face of it, Wolverhampton Wanderers’ clash with Serie A side Torino is the most glamorous tie of the round; calling to mind past glories enjoyed by two grand clubs steeped in folklore.

Both the ‘old gold’ of Wolves and the distinctive colours of i granata have endured some significant lows in recent history – each club slumping down their respective league pyramids and in Torino’s case even overcoming bankruptcy.

The considerable impact of investors Fosun has enabled enigmatic coach Nuno to lead Wolves into Europe for the first time in a generation (or two).

During the pre-season interval, the West Midlands side have bolstered an already potent attack with Patrick Cutrone – considered by some to be the future of the Milan forward-line until last season’s arrival of free-scoring Krzysztof Piatek – and ex-Lazio winger Pedro Neto, who will both be making a quick return to Italy this Thursday.

As his squad are now amid a period of five games in a fortnight, Nuno has said that his freshly-replenished squad will have to be rotated.

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Wolves have been handed an allocation of 1489 tickets for their trip to Turin and, even with such outnumbered support, should be considered slight favourites to overcome a Torino side who converted successful loanees Simone Zaza and Ola Aina into permanent signings during the summer.

Former Inter and (briefly) Watford boss, Walter Mazzarri said after their defeat of Shakhtor Soligorsk: “Given we’ll play the first leg at home, it’ll be important not to concede a goal. Certainly we’ll have to do better defensively than we did [against Shakhtor].”

Although the Serie A transfer window has yet to ‘slam shut’ – could someone just close one of these windows with gentle consideration once in a while? – Torino have so far retained a settled side, also featuring experienced campaigners such as ex-PSG ‘keeper Salvatore Sirigu, Venezuela captain Tomas Rincon, centre-half Nicolas N’Koulou and off-the-boil skipper Andrea Belotti.

However, the sheer dynamic potential of Wolves’ Portuguese enclave and their able supporting cast would be a more than welcome addition to Thursday night continental action for the weeks ahead.

Glamour ties with the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Sevilla and Roma await those who can hold their nerve in this playoff round.

For the victors, a sumptuous diet of European evenings between now and the year’s end; the losers: a reluctant return to the basic bread and butter of domestic affairs.

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