We’ve scouted the European opposition that Irish sides will be coming up against in Uefa competition this month, with thanks to some expert help.
Europe is back! This is the time of year all League of Ireland fans look forward to, as it’s an opportunity to compare the state of play here to other nations. And yet, it’s also somewhat dreaded as supporters expect each representative to lose and maybe even hockeyed.
Performances in both the Uefa Champions League and Europa League have gradually improved in recent times, with both Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers reaching the group stages of the latter tournament in the past decade. Whether that success can be built upon is the big question, and consistency will be key.
Although summer is usually a big advantage for Irish teams in these competitions, three of the four teams they are coming up against are also playing warm weather football. In order to better gauge their chances of progression, we’ve sought some expert help to learn more about the sides Dundalk, St. Pat’s, Cork City and Shamrock Rovers will be playing.
St. Patrick’s Athletic vs IFK Norrköping
The Inchicore outfit did not expect to be in Europe this season, but now that they are they will make the most of it. Unfortunately for them, they got a tough draw in the form of IFK Norrköping, meaning it will be an uphill task for the Saints.
“It would be widely regarded as a big, big failure not to progress given the draw,” Noa Bachner of Swedish newspaper Expressen tells The Football Faithful.
‘The Comrades’ have won the Swedish Allsvenskan 13 times, the most recent of which came in 2015. They currently lie sixth in the table Their squad is made up of mostly Swedes, although they have a couple of players from as far afield as Honduras and Albania. The other ‘foreign’ players in the team were all born in Swedish to parents from places like Egypt, Macedonia and Montenegro, reflecting the cultural melting pot the country is right now.
One player St. Pat’s might be aware of is Jordan Larsson, son of Celtic and Barcelona legend Henrik. The Swedish international has scored nine times for IFK this season as the club seeks to keep pace with the top third of the table, recently defeating defending champions AIK.
The days of Malmo reaching the European Cup final and IFK Göteborg winning the Uefa Cup (twice) are long gone, with clubs from Sweden rarely making a dent on the European scene anymore, but the standard of the Allsvenskan is still quite high despite the fact the league is just two places ahead of Ireland in the Uefa coefficient rankings. Things are improving too, according to Noa.
“As of now, Swedish football has gone through a period of transition with young players being more technically oriented and less physical football being played,” he tells us. “This has made the standard of the Swedish league better in my eyes, as teams and players are a bit more varied and harder to read.”
Similar to Germany, there is a 50+1 rule regarding ownership in place, meaning a club cannot be majority owned by one rich benefactor. Lacking the kind of investment that other big leagues receive, many of the best players leave for places like Denmark, where they can earn more. But in the long run it could give homegrown footballers a better chance of developing.
Of more pressing importance to St. Pat’s is, how do Norrköping approach matches tactically: “They’ve set up in 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 in the past year, with manager Jens Gustavsson getting praise and stick for the effectiveness,” Noa says.
“They’re a quick side with a quite passing oriented style of play, relying on keeping possession, but sometimes (some would say too often) struggling to break teams down in the final third. They’ve suffered defensively after their captain and anchor Ante Johansson left last summer.”
One advantage Irish teams have had in Europe over the past decade and a half is the fact that our domestic game is played in the summer, meaning they are usually in better shape and better prepared than their opponents. No such advantage exists for Pat’s on this occasion, however, as Swedish football is, naturally enough, also played in the summer.
There is a glimmer of hope for the underdogs in this tie, though. Never in the club’s history of playing in Europe, stretching back to the 1950’s, have Norrköping progressed more than two rounds. Pat’s have progressed to three rounds on four occasions, although they have not won a two-legged tie in this competition since 2016.
Cork City vs FC Progrès Niederkorn
In the city of Cork there have been various iterations of football clubs down through the decades, with the current incarnation establishing itself in 1984. Niederkorn has had no such instability; its football club is currently celebrating its centenary year.
Curiously, both teams have won their respective leagues on three occasions. History will play little part in who makes it through to the next round however, as neither side is yet to find the kind of form that got them here in the first place.
The Rebel’s woes have been well documented, having sacked manager John Caulfield at the beginning of May following a wretched start to the league campaign. Progrès, meanwhile, didn’t look great shakes in their preliminary round win over Cardiff Met University, just about getting through on away goals.
While Cork come into this fixture not expecting to win, they might be helped by the fact that their Luxembourgish opponents are still in the midst of pre-season. “Progrès must be must stronger than they were in the first tie with Cardiff,” cautions Paul Krier of FuPa.lu, “otherwise they won’t get through this game.”
Still, the club weren’t exactly unhappy to see Cork City’s name come out of the hat, namely because they aren’t expecting technical proficiency from their hosts this Wednesday. “They like the fact that they can play another British or Irish team, as it’s a draw they can win. They are optimistic, if not necessarily joyful about it.
“On both a sporting and travel level, it’s good. It’s not Kazakhstan or Georgia, this is much easier to get to for the team and the fans. They’re happy with both draws, and it’s logistically better for both teams,” Paul tells us.
Without many competitive games under their belts, Progrès are presented with challenges that Cork won’t have to deal with ahead of kick-off. Last season they were very much an attacking outfit, but one of their main attackers left the club during the off-season, while another is unavailable for selection for the time being.
It’s “hard to say” how they will approach this game. “They try to play 4-5-1, with two very offensive wingers when in possession. But against Cardiff they tried and failed this due to reorganisation, and they really had to change a lot up front,” Paul says.
He adds that the club “expect to win”, although he’s a lot less optimistic about the outcome. “They must offer much more up front this time, because in the box there is not enough danger. They may be strong in defence, but it could be a 50/50 game. And maybe even slightly in favour for Cork. If they don’t go for it in Cork they will have problems, they might win one leg, but not go through.”
Progrès have faced Irish opposition before, playing Shamrock Rovers in the Europa League in 2015. They lost 3-0 in Tallaght on that occasion. Will there be a similar result at Turner’s Cross on Thursday night?
Shamrock Rovers vs SK Brann
Although Shamrock Rovers fans will not want to believe the title race is dead and buried just yet, their season may come to be defined by how well they perform in Europe.
The Hoops have been handed a tough draw in that regard however, as they are up against SK Brann of Norway. The Bergen outfit finished last season in third position, and are in the mix for European qualification yet again this year as they sit in fifth place just three points behind second.
Norway are placed 32nd in Uefa’s coefficient ranking, a full 32 places behind Ireland, despite the fact that Eliteserien sides generally do better in Europe.
Judging by their last few league games, Brann prefer to line up in either a 3-5-2 or 5-4-1, packing the middle of the pitch to make it difficult for the opposition to play through, and that could be bad news for Jack Byrne and company.
The last time Rovers faced Norwegian opposition was in 2015, losing 4-1 on aggregate to Odd. The Tallaght outfit are in much better shape this time around though, and could catch Brann on the hop.
A European win is long overdue for Stephen Bradley’s side, who have had some disappointing nights ever since their Europa League odyssey in 2011 when they faced Spurs in the group stages. Out of 14 matches in the competition since, they’ve won just three.
Dundalk vs Riga FC
In Latvian football, there are no easy games. Anyone can beat anybody on their day. It’s a sporting cliché almost as old as the game itself, but in the Baltic nation it is as true as anywhere.
That’s according to Latvian football enthusiast, Jānis Vītols, who says the Optibet Virslīga is akin to a “rollercoaster”. With five different champions in the last seven years, who could argue with him. “Right now the fans are even saying that the results are unpredictable every single round,” he tells The Football Faithful.
Hello, Ireland! ?? ?? ?? ⚽️ ? ? pic.twitter.com/XihmCvYwVY
— Riga FC (@RigaFC_Official) July 8, 2019
It is the complete opposite situation in the League of Ireland, where Dundalk have won five of the last seven titles. While the Irish side go into this Champions League tie as slight favourites due to their consistency and previous form in Europe, the competitive edge may just lie with this week’s visitors.
Competitive though Latvian domestic football may be, there are question marks over the standard. The country lies 45th out of 55 in the Uefa coefficient rankings, putting them in the company of the likes of the Faroe Islands and Luxembourg. Contrastingly, Ireland sits in 19th, either side of Ukraine and Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Riga FC — who didn’t even exist until five years ago — are unperturbed going into this match however, as they have the “highest expectations” for Europe this season. “Either Dundalk or The New Saints Were the teams everyone wanted, no disrespect for those two teams,” Jānis says, “but they were in my opinion a lot better option than the remaining teams in the draw.”
In terms of styles of play, they are “unpredictable”, which poses challenges for Dundalk. They are an “attack-minded team with a good, compact defence. On the ball they love to stretch the field while in the offensive zone, to get some crosses in the penalty area.”
In Latvia, Riga are used to dominating possession and being the favourites in most games, but they go into this tie as the underdogs. How will they will deal with being put in a different situation? “They can play in a lot of ways, they have very balanced squad, at every position they have depth,” Jānis tells us, adding “they do not make a lot of mistakes on the defensive end.”
None of the names on the Riga team sheet will be recognisable to Irish football fans, although they do have Ibrahim Abdisalam, who was on the books at Manchester City for seven years. The Somali-born Norwegian played one Premier League game for the Sky Blues, a substitute appearance in a 0-0 draw against Liverpool in 2010.
Luckily for the Lilywhites, Riga have drafted in a number of new faces and are still trying to get the chemistry right. They hold a four point lead at the top of the table, but they’ve had mixed form lately with one win, a draw and a loss in their last three fixtures.