KAZAKHSTAN, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Macedonia. These are just some of the far-flung destinations where Hearts and Hibs could find themselves in the Europa League qualifiers.
Edinburgh is braced for the first and second qualifying rounds being drawn on June 20, with most fans praying for a trip closer to home.
Hearts could avoid a gruelling journey in the first qualifying round. Suggestions are that clubs will be unofficially regionalised at that stage. When contacted by the Evening News, UEFA officials would not confirm this. By the time Hibs enter one round later in the second qualifier, it will most definitely be a geographical free-for-all. All that will separate teams is seeding. Hearts’ co-efficient of 6.460 means they will be seeded in the first qualifying round and almost certainly again in the second, should they progress. Hibs will not be seeded due to their 3.960 co-efficient. It is worth noting for Easter Road fans that, if a non-seeded club beats a seed, they then assume the co-efficient of the seeded team for the next round. That rule applies up until the play-off for the group phase.
UEFA’s club competitions specialise in footballing outposts and it is possible Hearts or Hibs, perhaps both, will land in a distant and undistinguished destination in the next few weeks. Shymkent in Kazakhstan is certainly one to avoid. It is home to FC Ordabasy – currently fifth in the Kazakhstan Premier League – and is more than 3000 miles away with a six-and-a-half-hour flight time. Drawing Kapaz Ganja, who finished fifth in Azerbaijan’s Premier League, would be little better. It takes five hours to get there. Chikhura Sachkhere would be a similar trek into the rural farmlands of Georgia to face a team that came fourth in their national league, the Umaglesi Liga. Shirak Gyumri of Armenia is also five hours away and another name the Edinburgh clubs won’t want to face.
More recognisable teams come in the form of usual suspects who frequent the early rounds of European competition. Cliftonville and Glenavon represent Northern Ireland, Cork City from the Republic are there, plus Welsh clubs Bala Town, Connah’s Quay and Llandudno. Shamrock Rovers would appeal to both Hearts and Hibs given their manager is a certain Pat Fenlon, but they are seeded for the first qualifying round and therefore cannot meet Hearts. Other preferred opponents would include Torshavn or Runavik from the Faroe Islands, Fola Esch of Luxembourg and the Andorrans Lusitanos. The less travel the better in Europe, although there are plenty clubs not too far away who would provide a stern test when Hearts begin the first qualifying round on June 30. They could find themselves reacquainted with former winger Deividas Cesnauskis if they are paired with Trakai of Lithuania. Suduva Marijampole and Atlantas Klaipeida are also amongst the non-seeds for the Europa League’s first qualifying round. MTK Budapest will be a non-seed most will want to avoid, likewise the Bulgarians of Slavia Sofia.
Hibs’ task in the second qualifying round – which begins on July 14 – could be even more daunting depending on the kindness of the draw. Racing Genk, Maribor, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Austria Vienna, Partizan Belgrade, Hajduk Split, Grasshoppers and Slovan Bratislava are amongst the seeded sides they might face. IFK Gothenburg, Slavia Prague, Omonia Nicosia, Dinamo Minsk and Midtjylland are also likely to have progressed from the first qualifier.
UEFA draw both the first and second qualifying rounds for the Europa League and Champions League together in 18 days time. Both Hearts and Hibs will find out their fate, and whether or not a gruelling jaunt across the Continent lies in wait.