PICTURE by Standard de Liege/Photo News shows Bala Town v Standard Liege at the Stade Maurice Dufrasne.
THE three remaining Welsh clubs in the UEFA Europa League bowed out of the competition in the Second Qualifying Round this week – but in some style.
With Barry Town United having crashed out to a humiliating 5-1 scoreline in the First Qualifying Round at the foggy home of Faroe Islands side B36 Torshavn, it was down to 2019/20 JD Cymru Premier champions Connah’s Quay, runners-up The New Saints (TNS) and third placed finishers Bala Town to help put the league on the map.
And, whilst all three clubs were eventually eliminated from the competition, it’s fair to say all three games they were involved in, and indeed the journeys for each of those sides on their way into Qualifying Round Two, won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
For the most part, Welsh clubs have struggled in Europe over the years. Aside from the odd fairy tale story, Connah’s Quay beating Kilmarnock for example, Wales has had very little to talk about as inevitably, they will end up coming against bigger teams from bigger footballing countries.
TNS’ near-decade of dominance in the JD Cymru Premier between 2010-20, where they won the league eight times, saw them become our main representative in the UEFA Champions League. But any real success was hard to come by.
The Saints did make it into the competition’s play-offs stage in 2010/11, but lost out 5-2 on aggregate to Bulgarian side CSKA Sofia. Since then, the club has progressed past the first qualifying round of the Champions League five times and the UEFA Europa League second and third qualifying rounds once apiece – but there is always an eventual stumbling block.
This season, our current champions Connah’s Quay took on Bosnian giants FK Sarajevo in the UEFA Champions League and lost 2-0, meaning they then entered the Europa League Second Qualifying Round along with TNS and Bala Town.
The latter has been the biggest success story for Wales on the European stage this time around. Colin Caton’s Bala side advanced to the Second Qualifying Round for the first time in the club’s 140-year history when they beat Valletta 1-0 in Malta. It was also the Lakesiders’ first away win in Europe, after five previous attempts against Estonia’s Levadia Tallinn (13/14), Luxembourg’s Differdange (15/16), Sweden’s AIK (16/17), Liechtenstein’s Vaduz (17/18) and San Marino’s Tre Fiori (18/19) had been unsuccessful.
This year sees the UEFA Europa League and Champions League formats feature just the one leg, rather than the traditional two. And that might just give the minnows of the tie a bit more confidence in their abilities to cause an upset.
Bala’s excellent win in Malta earned them a fantastic draw against Belgian Pro League side and European competition regulars – Standard Liege. Although unfancied before the game by pundits and ‘experts’ alike, Bala gave a performance to be proud of at the Stade Maurice Dufrasne yesterday.
Caton’s men were only undone by a penalty by Felipe Avenatti and a deflected strike from Moroccan midfielder Selim Amallah early on as the game ended 2-0 to the home team.
It could have been so different too had club captain Chris Venables, who won the JD Cymru Premier Golden Boot for a fourth time at the end of 2019/20, converted his penalty when they were 1-0 down. Instead, his tame effort was saved by Arnaud Bodart in the Standard goal.
But, you have to say, the players went to Belgium against a team that is far superior, and is also already five games into its domestic season, and matched them for the most part. They put the little Town of Bala – population of less than 2,000 – on the map and I’m sure the Belgians will remember them for years to come.
Last summer, Belgian side KV Oostende reportedly chased Connah’s Quay’s towering defender Priestley Farquharson, this time around will we see another club come in for the likes of Lassana Mendes after a performance like his against Standard?
Back to our champions; The Nomads, and they too suffered a heartbreak but in even more dramatic fashion at Wrexham’s Racecourse ground. Having battled hard in their UEFA Champions League match v Sarajevo, Andy Morrison’s men went into their encounter against Georgian side Dinamo Tbilisi with an even tougher task – as they were missing five players who were struck down by Coronavirus just days earlier.
But you would never have guessed that judging by the performance the Quay players put on in this one.
Attacker Jamie Insall’s bicycle kick just before the break went so close to putting the Quay ahead, and the hosts put on some great attacking in the second half too.
It looked for all the world as though this tie was heading for Extra Time, BUT the Nomads were devastated in the end by a 97th minute penalty, scored by Giorgi Gabedava who ensured his side progressed to the Third Qualifying Round, where they will face KI Klaksvík of the Faroe Islands.
Finally, you had the 2019/20 JD Cymru Premier runners-up TNS’ penalty shoot-out agony at the hands of B36 Torshavn on Wednesday. The Saints had beat the same team by a 6-2 aggregate scoreline in the 2015/16 UEFA Champions League qualifiers. But, having seen this same side destroy Barry Town 5-1 just a few weeks earlier, manager Scott Ruscoe must have known his side would face a completely different experience this time around.
TNS had done very well in the First Qualifying Round to overcome Slovenian side MSK Zilina 3-1 (AET) with goals from Louis Robles and Leo Smith and an Adrian Cieslewicz penalty ensuring they advanced.
So, they would have been fancied to do it again against B36, particularly as Zilina are tougher opponents on paper.
But, the home side really put up a fight, Michal Przybylski scoring in the 47th minute to put them ahead. Leo Smith then scored his second European goal for the club on 80mins and the tie went to Extra Time. A Dean Ebbe goal in the 112th minute seemed to have clinched it for TNS but they conceded a penalty in the dying seconds of Extra Time, which was scored by Stefan Radosavljevic, to make it 2-2 and send the game to penalties.
After this week in Europe, I’m sure the word ‘penalty’ will send shivers down the spines of everyone involved with TNS, Connah’s Quay and Bala Town and with good reason – as most of them shouldn’t have been given against those clubs in my opinion.
TNS eventually crashed out 5-4 on penalties, Dean Ebbe and Daniel Redmond missing the crucial penalties for the Welsh side.
Failure these may seem on a piece of paper, but anyone who watched the matches will tell you that those three clubs gave it their all on their respective nights in Europe.
However UEFA will not see it that way unfortunately and it seems that the JD Cymru Premier will now go on to lose one of its European spots. The results in Europe this time around have seen Wales take a huge blow in their coefficient rankings, dropping to below 50th, which will result in it going from four European spots available to Welsh top-flight clubs to three as of the 2022/23 season.
It could cause all sorts of financial and structural complications to come in future. Next season, Welsh clubs will avoid the Europa League and instead enter UEFA’s newly formed competition, the UEFA Europa Conference League.
No club from Wales will enter the preliminary round and instead there will potential matches against sides from; Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Finland, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Lichenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Northern Ireland, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Republic of Ireland and San Marino.
It seems a cruel punishment for the European efforts put in this week and if we do, as UEFA suggest, go on to lose a European spot, then it certainly won’t be for the want of trying.