Europa League First Qualifying Round

First Qualifying Round

It may be World Cup semi-final week but the bandwagon for next season is already clicking slowly into gear, with European qualifiers beginning this week.

The journey towards the Europe League and Champions League group stages begins in earnest for a host of hopefuls.

With only four games left at the World Cup in Russia, the return of club action will be a relief for football fans forced to contemplate the end of what has already been a magnificent summer festival of football.

Many eyes will be fixed on former Liverpool and England captain Steven Gerrard this week as he makes his first step in club management with Scottish outfit Rangers.

It begins in earnest at Ibrox on Thursday as Macedonian minnows FK Shkupi stand between Gerrard and an opening win in his first competitive game as a club boss.

Rangers know better than most the pitfalls of the Europa League given what happened last season against Progres Niederkorn last summer. Defeat to the side from Luxembourg was effectively the start of an unravelling that ended with manager Pedro Caixinha being sacked before Christmas.

Gerrard will crave momentum and he’ll know that can only come with smooth progress in this tie. His Rangers side are heavy favourites at 1.06 for this Ibrox tussle and they’ll surely plant one foot firmly in the next round with a comfortable win.

With the experience garnered in a career where he lifted every major honours in European club football, Gerrard should have the know-how to get off to a winning start against limited opponents.

At a more rewarding price, there could be value to be had in following Irish outfit Dundalk as they face Levadia Tallinn in Estonia.

The Airtricity League leaders are in excellent shape this season domestically, with 19 wins from their 25 games in the Irish top tier. Levadia have also proved tough to defeat, with one loss in 18 starts domestically, but Dundalk have the experience of European football to call on.

Stephen Kenny’s team were in the Europa League group stage just a couple of years ago and performed admirable well against strong opponents. Their summer is geared towards being spot on for these qualifiers and they look a decent bet at 2.40 to return form Estonia with a win.

The same level of confidence would be impossible to summon for Dundalk’s compatriots Derry City.

The Candystripes have to settle into their refurbished Brandywell Stadium this season, with as many defeat (11) as there have been wins so far in their domestic league.

Derry have not managed to relish the European stage in the way that other Irish league teams have recently and they look vulnerable even with home advantage against Dinamo Minsk.

They were swept aside recently by Dundalk at home, going down 4-0, and now face an Estonian outfit that has conceded only seven goals in 15 league games in their domestic league. Dinamo are just four points adrift of BATE Borisov and should be strong enough to grind out a win at odds of 1.57.