Football never sleeps. Less than three weeks since Chelsea lifted the Champions League trophy (spit), European club competition roll back into town this week with the draw for the first qualifying round of the various tournaments, including the new Europa Conference League.
The performance of Finnish sides in Europe in the last decade has been from mediocre to awful, only HJK making the group stage of the Europa League and a couple of decent runs by KuPS. The co-efficient is appalling and very much opposite to the performance of the national team.
Klubi will be back in the Champions League, but face a tough run if they’re looking to progress. As an unseeded side, they will need to play a side who, on paper, will be stronger. UEFA continue their habit of putting the teams into mini groups before the draw, which mean HJK will need to play a two legged tie against either Cluj (Romania), Shkendija (North Macedonia), Alashkert (Armenia) or Buducnost Podgorica (Montenegro).
The club have said their ultimate aim this season is to play in the group stage of one of the cups, and could conceivably play in all three. By losing in the second qualifying round, HJK would then have the security blanket of dropping into the Europa League, with another defeat allowing them to go into the Conference League. Losing in the first qualifying round would send HJK directly into the Conference League second qualifier round. The first draws are made on Tuesday 15th June, the second round draws on Wednesday 16th.
In the new Conference League, the three representatives also face the likelihood of long journeys. KuPS are seeded thanks to their run last year which was ended by Cluj – they will play either Noah (Armenia), Milsami Orhei (North Macedonia), Podgorica (Montenegro) or Dila Gori of Georgia. The other two Finnish clubs are unseeded, with Inter Turku facing clubs from either Estonia (Levadia Tallinn), Hungary (Puskas Akademia), Kosovo (Drita) or Lithuania (Suduva), while Honka will have to go to Faroe Islands (NSI Runavik), Latvia (Liepaja), Slovakia (Spartak Trnava), Ireland (Dundalk) or Iceland (Breidablik).
To keep the draw fairly short (by UEFA standards), each group of teams have a number assigned, so the draw is made purely by pulling out the numbers in a given order; eg 3 v 8, 7 v 2. Trust our footballing masters.
I’m sure our Armenian Football Show counterparts will be equally non-plussed as us, these early draws are often a window into a world of football we rarely get to see. The rarity of a Finnish club side in Europe past September continues to elude us, we’re now at 22 years since the Champions League groups came to Helsinki.
We can only hope that the momentum created by the Finland side reaching Euro 2020 will continue to drip down into the club game, an entertaining and more professional domestic game isn’t making much progress on the continent. My dream of seeing KuPS play in England remains distant, although they could still play Spurs, who qualified for the Europa Conference League, if they do well…
The results of the first qualifying draws were:
UCL: HJK v Budućnost Podgorica (MNE)
UECL: Inter Turku vs Puskás Akadémia (HUN)
UECL: Noah (ARM) vs KuPS
UECL: Honka vs NSÍ Runavík (FRO)
The draw for the second qualifying rounds will follow on Wednesday 16th June, with the winner of HJK’s Champions League tie potentially up against Malmo, Cluj or Ferencvaros.
The Conference League groupings will follow.