Shamrock Rovers, Derry City and Dundalk are all in Europa League first qualifying round action this week with the first legs taking place this Thursday.
In the first of a series of three articles, beginning with Dundalk tie with FCI Levadia Tallinn, Michael Hanley takes a look at the opposition and what lies in store for the Premier Division side should they progress to the second qualifying round.
The preliminary qualifying round involving fourteen teams was completed last week with historic maiden victories in the competition for clubs from Kosovo and San Marino - see a detailed round up of that preliminary round here.
94 clubs entered the first qualifying round draw for the 2018/2019 UEFA Europa League with Dundalk ranking tenth amongst the 47 seeded clubs. This relatively lofty seeding is thanks mainly to their achievement of reaching the group stage in 2016/17 - whilst Shamrock Rovers and Derry City entered the draw unseeded.
Just for reaching this phase each club will receive €240,000 from UEFA with a further €260,000 available should they win the tie and progress to the second qualifying round.
Dundalk will take on Estonian opposition in the shape of FCI Levadia Tallinn. FCI Levadia, who play in the 5000 capacity Kadriorg Stadium in the nation’s capital, is a merger formed after the 2017 season of the two Tallinn clubs FCI and Levadia who finished fourth and second respectively in the ten team 2017 Meistrilliga.
Followers of the early rounds of European club competition will be familiar with the name of Levadia Tallinn who were the nine times Estonian champions. Levadia were beaten 6-2 on aggregate at the same stage of last season’s competition including a 2-1 defeat in Estonia by Cork City. The 4-2 loss in Turner’s Cross last season was Levadia’s third defeat on Irish soil.
Goals from Ollie Cahill and Fahrudin Kudozovic gave Drogheda United a 2-1 win in the 2008/2009 first qualifying round of the Champions League at Dalymount Park with Drogheda going on to win the tie 3-1.
Bohemians also consigned them to a 3-0 defeat at the same stage of the 2001/2002 competition at the storied Dublin venue.
Estonia, at number 42, is ranked three places below Ireland in the UEFA European Country Coefficient that is a measure of how an association’s clubs have performed in Europe over the last five seasons and Dundalk should be quietly confident of getting a result against the side who currently sit third in the Meistrilliga.
FCI Levadia Tallinn are managed by Aleksandr Rogic who was in charge of FCI Tallinn before the merger at the end of 2017 and is one of the few links that survived from the much smaller FCI who themselves finished runners up to Levadia that season. Rogic, a Serb, has served as assistant manager to both the Serbian and Ghanaian senior national sides and took up the post at FCI in 2017.
The Meistrilliga is similar to the Airtricty League in that it is now half way through its season. FCI Levadia sit in third place behind leaders Nomme Kalju who themselves are in Europa League qualifying action this week against Stjarnan of Iceland who were beaten last season by Shamrock Rovers.
FCI Levadia are on a very decent run of form with just one defeat in all competitions this season, their most recent results (4-1 and 12-0) against lower tier opposition in the Estonian Cup show that they are side who will provide a threat in front of goal.
142 was the official attendance for FCI Levadia’s last home league game, a 6-1 victory over the lowly Vaprus so it is very possible the travelling Dundalk support will outnumber the natives on Thursday.
Players to watch include Ukrainian striker Roman Debelko, who is on loan from Karpaty Lviv, who has scored sixteen goals so far this season.
Former Russian U-19 international striker Nikita Andreyev who spent time at Almeria in 2010 and signed from Russian second tier side FC Tambov in 2017 also is one to keep an eye on.
The club are captained by Dmitri Kruglov. The 34 year old left back has 110 caps for the Estonian national team having also played in the top divisions of Russia and Azerbaijan during his career.
Quite remarkably, should Dundalk progress they will meet AEK Larnaca in the second qualifying round who knocked Cork out of last season’s competition after their victory over Levadia.
#DundalkFC supporters attending Thursday's @EuropaLeague tie against @LevadiaFC can enter via the main entrance of the Kadriorg Stadium and buy a ticket at the entrance. Ticket price €10. #UEL #CmonTheTown pic.twitter.com/b7PGwC0AGX— Dundalk FC (@DundalkFC) July 9, 2018