Minnows grab slice of Champions League pie

Paris (AFP) – It is barely a month since Real Madrid lifted the Champions League trophy, Euro 2016 is only now warming up and the rest of the continent’s footballers have their feet up at the beach.

But Europe’s premier club competition revs up all over again this week with the first qualifying round, the opening salvos of a glamour tournament that will reach its denouement in Cardiff on June 3, 2017. Talk about the long road to Champions League glory.

The opening qualifying round, a rare chance for Europe’s minnows to enjoy a tiny slice of Champions League glory, reads like a football trivia quiz book: Anyone for B36 Torshavn? (Answer: Faroe Islands). Or Alashkert? (Armenia). How about The New Saints?

The perennial Welsh Premier League winners, also known as TNS, host San Marino’s Tre Penne on Tuesday with the winner over two legs going up against relative heavyweights Apoel from Cyprus.

TNS are based in the ancient English market town of Oswestry, on the border with Wales, and they hope to pack 2,000 fans into their tidy Park Hall Stadium for the clash with Tre Penne.

It may be a world away from Milan’s San Siro, where more than 70,000 saw Real beat Madrid rivals Atletico on penalties in the May final, but make no mistake: livelihoods are at stake and ambition burns brightly.

TNS boss Craig Harrison says that making it into the second round of qualifiers would be worth 700,000 euros ($780,000 or £570,000) to the club — enough to cover TNS financially for the season.

“If we don’t get through it will be disappointing,” Harrison told AFP, saying that irrespective of the financial benefits, as players and coaches it is all about being involved in the Champions League, even if is at the lowest rung of the competition.

“To be involved in the best club competition in the world is still very important.”  

Harrison, whose playing career involved stints with Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace, has not seen Tre Penne first hand but got his hands on recent footage of them and describes his club as “overwhelming favourites, though we are taking nothing for granted.”

It is not arrogance: UEFA’s coefficiency rankings, based on results in the last five years in Europe, put the Welsh side nearly 200 places higher than their San Marino rivals.

– Emulating Shamrock –

Their achievements might seem trivial by the standards of Europe’s elite, but TNS have a history of modest success in Europe that they are proud of and determined to improve on.

Their Champions League experience over the past decade includes a respectable 6-0 defeat over two qualifying legs in 2005 to Liverpool, then the reigning champions, and they reached the third qualifying round in 2010 before going down to Anderlecht.

Making it as far as the group stages of the competition for the first time is almost certainly out of the question.

But Harrison hopes TNS can spring a surprise and get into the group stages of the Europa League, the ugly sister competition of the Champions League which teams tumble into after failing in the Champions League.

Harrison takes inspiration from Shamrock Rovers, the Irish side which went on a fairytale run into the Europa League group stage in 2011, facing the likes of Premier League Tottenham.

It is proof that for TNS, Tre Penne and the rest setting out in the Champions League qualifiers the big boys of Europe are within sniffing distance.

TNS were back in training less than three weeks after winning the Welsh Cup on May 2, making it a severely curtailed summer for the coaching staff and players, who are full-time professionals. 

Not that anyone is complaining.

“It’s habit now,” said Harrison. “It’s five years now that it’s been like this. To be involved in the Champions League, it’s a small sacrifice to make.”

The other first qualifying round games are Flora Tallinn (Estonia) v Lincoln (Gibraltar), Valletta (Malta) v B36 Torshavn and Santa Coloma (Andorra) v Alashkert.

The second legs are on July 5-6.

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