Champions League: Linfield return to action as one campaign starts while another concludes

By Matt GaultBBC Sport NI
Linfield prepare for European campaign

On Saturday, as Barcelona, Napoli, Chelsea and Bayern Munich resume their Champions League last-16 ties, next season's competition will get under way in Switzerland.

Linfield are one of four teams hoping to clear the first hurdle in the 2020-21 Champions League with the Irish Premiership champions taking on San Marino's Tre Fiori in the semi-final of the preliminary round.

Linfield, Irish League champions in six of the last 10 seasons, are well-accustomed to competing in the early stages of the Champions League.

However, they will begin this year's European adventure under vastly different circumstances.

The Belfast Blues have not played a competitive match since beating Carrick Rangers on 7 March in the last round of Irish Premiership fixtures before the coronavirus-enforced sporting shutdown in Northern Ireland.

In June, they were named champions of the curtailed 2019-20 campaign via a mathematical formula after Irish League clubs failed to agree on how the season could resume, thus securing their spot in the Champions League.

With a date for the start of the 2020-21 Irish Premiership season yet to be announced, David Healy's side are focused on their upcoming European mission.

How Champions League qualification works

However, this season the path through the qualifiers will be a little different.

On Saturday, the two preliminary round semi-finals see Linfield face Tre Fiori and Kosovan side Drita taking on Andorra's Inter Club d'Escaldes at the Colovray Stadium in Nyon.

If the Blues beat the Sammarinese champions in their one-legged semi-final, they will face the winner of the other last four clash in Tuesday's final.

The behind-closed-doors preliminary round games will be the only qualifiers contested at a neutral venue.

If Linfield fail to progress, they will drop into the Europa League second qualifying round as an unseeded team. Seeded sides include Tottenham Hotspur and Rangers.

Should they advance from the preliminaries, however, they will compete in the Champions League first qualifying round, which will also feature one-legged matches.

In order to reach the group stages, they must also negotiate the one-legged second and third qualifying rounds as well as a two-legged play-off.

If Linfield were to exit the first qualifying round, they would enter the Europa League second qualifying round as a seeded team.

Should they lose in the Champions League second qualifying round, they would compete in the third stage of the Europa League qualifiers.

Last season, after being knocked out of the Champions League qualifiers by Rosenborg, the Blues reached the Europa League play-offs, where they were eliminated on away goals by Qarabag after their tie finished 4-4 on aggregate.

'Elimination would be massive kick in the teeth'

Linfield striker Andrew Waterworth admits that failing to progress beyond the Champions League preliminaries would be a 'massive kick in the teeth' after last season's encouraging results, which included Europa League qualifying wins over HB Torshavn and FK Sutjeska.

"We're very realistic without being negative that once we reach the qualifying rounds of the Champions League and come up against the bigger teams, it'll be night and day," admitted Waterworth, who is Linfield's record European goalscorer.

"If we don't get through the preliminary round it will be a massive kick in the teeth.

"We're under no illusions, it's going to be a tough ask, but that has to be our goal."

Andrew Waterworth
Waterworth in action as Linfield bowed out 6-0 on aggregate to Rosenborg in last year's Champions League

After last season's near-miss, Waterworth believes progression in European competition needs to be a top priority for Irish League sides.

While League of Ireland team Shamrock Rovers reached the Europa League group stages under Michael O'Neill in 2011-12, Northern Irish clubs have never advanced beyond the qualifiers.

"The main goal for all Irish League sides needs to be to do better in Europe," said Waterworth.

"Obviously we're not going to compete in the Champions League, but we were so close to qualifying for the Europa League group stages.

"Whichever team can reach those group stages and kick us on, that will be the next level for us - it will bring our coefficient up and get the league more money and recognition."

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