Fulham's squad returns from break on June 23rd with their first competitive fixture a week away. While other Premier League clubs will be preparing for lucrative friendlies across the globe, the Cottagers will be looking forward to the joy that is Europa League qualifying.
Because Fulham earned their spot in the second most prestigious continental club competition in Europe via their UEFA Fair Play ranking, they will have to begin their campaign during the first qualifying phase of the tournament, swimming amongst the minnows as a big fish in a small pond. A rare place to be, indeed.
If fortune shines, a short jaunt to Belfast or Neath could be on the horizon. If fortune frowns, Martin Jol and his band of weary men could be plying their trade in Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan. I did mention the joys of qualifying, right?
Fulham's travel plans will be determined on Monday, when the first and second qualifying round matchups are drawn.
So, who could Fulham face in the first two rounds of qualifying? Are there any clubs worth worrying about?
Well, in a word: no.
Because of Fulham's relatively high UEFA coefficient, they will maintain a favored seeding as long as they stay alive in the qualifying rounds. Of the 200 teams who will play during the three-round qualifying phase, only Atlético Madrid and AZ Alkmaar hold higher coefficients than mighty, mighty Fulham.
As comical as it is, Fulham's coefficient of 40.157 is over 31 points higher than the next highest ranked team in the first qualifying round, Elfsborg, and almost twice as big as the second highest ranked team in the second qualifying round, Red Bull Salzburg.
No matter to Fulham, however, as most clubs of any pedigree in these early rounds are similarly seeded and should avoid each other.
Now, a quick preview of the draws for each round:
First Qualifying Round
Match Dates: June 30th and July 7th
Unfavorable Draws: Kazakh, Azeri and Eastern European clubs
Favorable Draws: Every other club
There really isn't a team to worry about at the start of the tournament. The strongest of the unseeded teams, Northern Irish "giants" Glentoran, are a shell of their once formidable selves and actually prove a favorable draw compared to clubs such as AZAL PFC Baku and FC Irtysh Pavlodar, each located several thousand miles away.
For all intents and purposes, Jol could send out the reserves and expect a comfortable result against any of these clubs. Not a knock on potential opponents, just a reality of the finances and difference in quality of depth that the clubs possess compared to that of an average Premier League side.
Second Qualifying Round
Match Dates: July 14th and 21st.
Unfavorable Draws: Ferencváros, Örebro, Śląsk Wrocław
Favorable Draws: Every other club
Again, not much to worry about in this group. But there are a few intriguing teams:
- Hungary's Ferencváros is one. Purchased a few years ago by Sheffield United owner Kevin McCabe, Ferencváros were once the dominant club in Hungary and a legitimate power in Europe. Those years have long since passed and the Budapest-based club was relegated in 2006 as punishment for teetering on the brink of financial ruin. Now, slowly recovering and increasingly stable, Ferencváros is a legitimate force in Hungary again. They're just not there quite yet.
- The Swedish league boasts a handful of quality teams, one of which is Örebro. The club features several capped Swedish players (John Alvbage, Patrik Anttonen, Nordin Gerzic and Michael Almeback) as well as American international Alejandro Bedoya. A major boon for Örebro at this point of the tournament is that their league, the Allsvenskan, is in the third month of its season and the players are at full fitness. Look for Örebro to be a tricky draw for whoever is matched up with them.
- Śląsk Wrocław was a surprise in Poland last season, finishing 2nd in the Ekstraklasa head of Legia Warsaw on goal differential. Not too many names jump out from the club's roster outside of Sebastian Mila and Przemysław Kaźmierczak. You may remember Kaźmierczak from a brief spell he had at Derby County three seasons ago.
On the whole, the second phase introduces another crop of marginal teams from slightly less-minor domestic leagues than the first. Only Örebro and Śląsk Wrocław should require long looks.
It will be interesting to see how Jol approaches these early matches. The only questions that Fulham should have much difficulty answering at this phase are those of match fitness and squad selection.