Even though it is barely a month since Manchester United lifted the Europa League trophy in Solna, the new European season is just around the corner.
League of Ireland sides Derry City, Shamrock Rovers and Cork City will all be beginning their Europa League adventure again, with the latter looking to take their storming domestic form into Europe and progress from last season’s campaign, which ended with a 3-1 aggregate defeat to eventual quarter-finalists Genk.
None of the Irish sides are seeded for the first qualifying round, which could throw up some daunting trips if the draw is unkind to the three clubs involved.
At the lower end of the draw, fallen Scottish giants Rangers just about scraped into the right side of the draw – and while the League of Ireland sides would want to avoid them based on their name, Rangers are not the team they used to be and could be there for the taking.
But who are some of the sides that the Irish sides will be desperate to avoid in the draw?
Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel)
One of two Israeli sides in the competition, Maccabi Tel Aviv have the highest coefficient points of any side in this round (and would be second only to Galatasaray in the second). Dundalk beat Maccabi in the group stage (and lost a hard-fought game 2-1 in the away leg), but the three Irish sides will still be looking to avoid what is on paper the strongest club in the round, especially with star names such as Tal Ben Haim, Yossi Benayoun and Pedrag Rajkovic in the squad.
FC Midtjylland (Denmark)
Midtjyllan made headlines 18 months ago when they gave Manchester United a bit of a scare in the 2015/16 competition, and while they probably aren’t as strong as they were two years ago, the likes of Tim Sparv and Jakob Poulsen, with all the international experience they bring to the table, would make them formidable opponents.
Jagiellonia Białystok (Poland)
Jagiellonia looked on course to win the Polish Ekstraklaska for the first time in their history before being pipped by Legia Warsaw, and are one of the biggest threats to the unseeded sides in the first round. With Ireland’s own Cillian Sheridan leading the line in attack, they could do very well in the early rounds if they get the right draw.
AIK Solna (Sweden)
Cork City probably wouldn’t mind facing AIK Solna in this round, such is their weirdly impressive recent record in Europe against Swedish teams, but AIK nonetheless are a strong outfit. Currently in fourth place in the Swedish league (which runs through the summer like Ireland), a strong defensive unit supplemented by returning hero Henok Goitom in attack could see them through.
FC Kairat Almaty (Kazakhstan)
A 13,000km round-trip for a first round Europa League qualifier would be the stuff of nightmares, and the team waiting for them wouldn’t exactly be a pushover either. Currently top of the Kazakhstan Premier League and with Ivorian striker Gerard Gohou in the form of his life, it could all be too much for an Irish side’s fist European jaunt of the season.