The new season isn’t far away and the likes of Manchester United and Inter Milan will be preparing for Europa League campaigns in Europe’s second tier competition. For some of European football’s lesser light though, there’s an arduous qualifying campaign to attend to before they can even think about taking their place in the group stages.
The qualifiers consist of three rounds plus a play off round, and at the moment we’re up to the second legs of the second qualifying round, which will be played on Thursday evening. There’s plenty of UK interest at this stage with Scottish clubs Hearts, Hibs and Aberdeen all involved, while Welsh side Gap Connah’s Quay Nomads are still in with a shot after losing their first leg 1-0 to Serbian side Vojvodina.
Aberdeen are in a strong position after defeating Ventspils 3-0 in the home leg last week, and they travel to Latvia looking to finish the job. Hearts drew 0-0 with a solid Birkirkara team last week in sweltering conditions in Malta, and they’ll be much more comfortable back on home soil in the relatively temperate Scottish environment. Hibs are the side with most to do as they lost 1-0 at home to a strong Brondby side, and must travel to Denmark with new boss Neil Lennon suspended from the sidelines after his sending off for protesting a disallowed goal in that game.
Hearts v Birkirkara
Our first tip is on Hearts to overcome Maltese opoosition at -227 with William Hill
The Jambos dominated the game last week in 30 degrees heat in Malta, but couldn’t find the finishing touch to make their superiority tell. Captain Alim Ozturk went close as his shot crashed off the bar, while Connor Sammon had the ball in the net only to be flagged offside.
It won’t necessarily be a cakewalk, as Birkirkara have shown their ability in this competition before. They held West Ham to a draw and a penalty shootout at this stage in last season’s qualifiers, and are a particularly difficult side to break down. They reached this stage with a 3-1 aggregate win over Bosnian’s Siroki Brijeg, although their only away victory in continental competition came at Armenian’s Ulisses FC last year.
Hearts have reached the play off stage in each of their last three appearances in this tournament though, and they should dominate this game. As long as they make the breakthrough, we expect them to go on and win the game to qualify for the third round, setting up a meeting with Russian side Krasnodar.
Brondby v Hibernian
Hibs may have shot themselves in the foot last week in the first leg, and Brondby are fancied at -222 with Marathonbet to win this game and the tie.
It was a howler from goalkeeper Otso Virtanen which gifted a goal to Brondby in the opening 17 seconds last week in calamitous fashion. The 22 year-old Finn should have held on to a tame shot from the edge of the box but spilled it into the path of Wilczek, who gratefully gobbled up to give the Danes the lead. Jason Cummings looked to have equalised later in the first half, but he was adjudged to be offside. Neil Lennon’s protests in his first competitive game in charge led to him being given his marching orders, and he was forced to watch the rest of the game from the stands.
It wouldn’t have made pretty viewing as striker Grant Holt had a penalty appeal turned down and the goal that Hibs were chasing never materialised. That’s left them with an uphill battle against an experienced European side, but we can’t fancy them to overturn the result on Thursday night.
Brondby beat Icelandic side Valur Reykjavik 10-1 on aggregate in the previous round, and Polish striker Wilczek has notched in each of their four games so far this season. They hit Esbjerg 4-0 in the Danish league at the weekend as they attempt to mount a title challenge domestically, and they will fancy their own chances of progressing here to face Hertha Berlin in the third qualifying round.
Hibs meanwhile will face another year of trying to force their way out of the Scottish Championship, and any dreams of European distractions this season may be dead and buried by late Thursday night.
Stromsgodset v Sonderjyske
Finally we fancy Norwegians Stromsgodset to overturn a first-leg deficit at -123 with Marathonbet when they host Danish side Sonderjyske.
The Danes won 2-1 on home turf last week, but it was a very even match. The home side took the lead on 9 minutes but Stromsgodset equalised after 16 minutes and the game looked to be heading for a draw until an 82nd minute winner gave the hosts victory. Possession and goal attempts were similar though, and the Norwegians have an excellent home record.
They’ve won the last nine in a row on home ground, and warmed up for this with a 1-0 victory over Tromso at the weekend. Sonderjyske were beaten at home by Aarhus in the Danish league in their weekend domestic action, and they will do well to defend their lead here.
Hearts to beat Birkirkara
Thursday 21st July, 20:00 GMT
Brondby to beat Hibernian
Thursday 21st July, 19:00 GMT
Stromsgodset to beat Sonderjyske
Thursday 21st July, 18:00 GMT