Odd as it may seem, one of my passive passions is following the League of Ireland. The quality of play is relatively poor, but the the financial turmoil and general turbulence within the league is captivating.
As a perfect example of the league's turbulence, St. Patrick's Athletic should not even be in the Europa League. They finished fifth in the League of Ireland Premier Division during the 2010 season and failed to take home either the FAI Cup or the Irish League Cup.
However, on Feb. 10, Sporting Fingal, last season's fourth placed finisher, was forced to wind up and dissolve, allowing the SuperSaints to enter the Europa League in their place.
Rare as it is for many of the teams at this low of a level, St. Pat's actually has tasted a bit of success in European competition. In 2002, they won their first European tie, defeating Croatia's NK Rijeka in the Intertoto Cup on away goals. More recently, they've had solid showings during UEFA Cup/Europa league play.
During the 2008-09, St. Pats scored victories in the first two rounds of UEFA Cup qualifying before losing to Hertha Berlin by a respectable 2-0 aggregate scoreline. Last season, they worked their way to the third round of qualifying again, even scoring an upset over Russian Premier League side Krylia Sovetov before being dropped by Steaua Bucharest.
This season, they'll begin qualifying against Icelandic side Íþróttabandalag Vestmannaeyja who, for obvious reasons, is traditionally referred to as IBV.
Curiously enough, IBV boasts five English players on their roster: Ian Jeffs, Matt Garner, Kevin Mellor, Bryan Hughes and Jordan Connerton. Fans may have some familiarity with the 35-year-old Hughes, a former English u21 international who spent seven seasons with Birmingham City. He's entering his first with IBV.
Outside of the Englishmen, the squad is predominantly Icelandic, though Uganda, Ukraine and Denmark are also represented. IBV has gone through a 13-year championship dry spell, having last tasted success in 1998 when they won a coveted league and domestic cup double. Currently, IBV sit in second place in the Úrvalsdeild, Iceland's top division, though the league has only played through eight rounds thus far.
St. Pat's will be forced to play without their captain Connor Kenna, who has been ruled out of the entire round as he recovers from a long-term knee injury. IBV will still have their hands full with St. Pat's forwards Daniel North and Daryl Kavanagh. The pair have combined to score 15-goals in the first 20 games of the Premier Division season for the SuperSaints, who currently sit at the top of the table.
The bookies have this pegged as a close matchup, but I can't look past the experience and form of St. Patrick's Athletic.
Aggregate score prediction: St. Patrick's Athletic 4 - 2 IBV
Below are my picks for the remainder of the round. You can read Kris's eerily similar choices here.
|First Round Qualifying Tie||Stephen's Winner Prediction|
|KR Reykjavík (ISL) v ÍF Fuglafjørdur (FRO)||KR Reykjavík|
|IL Elfsborg (SWE) v CS Fola Esch (LUX)||IL Elfsborg|
|The New Saints FC (WAL) v Cliftonville FC (NIR)||The New Saints FC|
|FC Honka Espoo (FIN) v JK Nõmme Kalju (EST)||JK Nõmme Kalju|
|Fulham FC (ENG)* v NSÍ Runavík (FRO)||Fulham FC|
|ÍBV Vestmannaeyjar (ISL) v Saint Patrick's Athletic FC (IRL)||Saint Patrick's Athletic FC|
|BK Häcken (SWE)* v UN Käerjéng 97 (LUX)||BK Häcken|
|Aalesunds FK (NOR)* v Neath FC (WAL)||Aalesunds FK|
|FK Renova (MKD) v Glentoran FC (NIR)||FK Renova|
|FC Koper (SVN) v FC Shakhter Karagandy (KAZ)||FC Shakhter Karagandy|
|FK Banga (LTU) v Qarabağ FK (AZE)||Qarabağ FK|
|Paksi SE (HUN) v UE Santa Coloma (AND)||Paksi SE|
|FK Rabotnicki (MKD) v JK Trans Narva (EST)||FK Rabotnicki|
|FK Rad (SRB) v SP Tre Penne (SMR)||FK Rad|
|FK Budućnost Podgorica (MNE) v KS Flamurtari (ALB)||FK Budućnost Podgorica|
|Ulisses FC (ARM) v Ferencvárosi TC (HUN)||Ferencvárosi TC|
|Jagiellonia Białystok (POL) v FC Irtysh Pavlodar (KAZ)||Jagiellonia Białystok|
|FC Minsk (BLR) v Olimpik-Şüvälan PFK (AZE)||FC Minsk|
|FC Dinamo Tbilisi (GEO) v FC Milsami Orhei (MDA)||FC Dinamo Tbilisi|
|NK Varaždin (CRO) v FC Lusitans (AND)||NK Varaždin|
|FC Banants (ARM) v Metalurgi Rustavi (GEO)||Metalurgi Rustavi|
|Birkirkara FC (MLT) v KS Vllaznia (ALB)||KS Vllaznia|
|NK Široki Brijeg (BIH) v NK Olimpija Ljubljana (SVN)||NK Široki Brijeg|
|FC Spartak Trnava (SVK) v FK Zeta (MNE)||FC Spartak Trnava|