Scottish clubs set to have their shortest ever stint in Europe?

Dundee United are already a goal down following their defeat to Polish runners-up Slask Wroclow in the second Qualifying round of the Europa League.

Rangers will face two qualifying rounds just to reach the group stages of the Champions’ League where a whole new challenge will then await them.

And Celtic and Hearts both face potentially tricky ties in their Europa League campaigns, with Hearts requiring to negotiate two qualifiers to Celtic’s one.

Scottish sides, barring both Celtic and Rangers in recent seasons to a degree, have struggled in European competition. Indeed the record of early round defeats to sides described as European minnows vastly outweighs victories against the so called giants.

But the 2011/12 season might end up being the worst in recent memory in terms of European adventures for Scottish clubs.

As above, Dundee United already find themselves fighting for their European futures after a narrow defeat in Poland. They play the second leg of that tie at Tannadice tonight (THURS, 20/7/11) knowing they could be out of Europe before the bigger clubs on the continent get into their pre-season stride.

Rangers found out on Tuesday that they will face Swedes Malmo in their first qualifier for the prestigious Champions League. Malmo, who won the Swedish championship last season but who are mid-table in their division this campaign, saw off the challenge of HB Torshavn 3-1 on aggregate to set up the clash with the Ibrox club.

Ally McCoist’s side – who have enjoyed a topsy turvy close season since securing their 54th championship on the SPL’s final day – should have enough in their armoury to see of the Swedes.

But it is in the next round – the Champions’ League playoff – that they might come up short.

Potentially, that could include a tricky clash with sides such as Greeks Panathinaikos, Ukrainians Dynamo Kiev, Russians Ruben Kazan or Portuguese cracks Benfica. Victory in that playoff will mean a first, sole crack at the Champions’ League for McCoist, with defeat leaving Rangers with a place in the Europa League group stage as one of the ten playoff losers.

In terms of Hearts, as with other sides in Scotland and with the Old Firm venturing into Europe, their European record hasn’t exactly forced people to sit up and take notice. Their best run in the competition in recent times came in 2004, then known as the UEFA Cup, when they reached the group stage only to be drawn with Feyenoord, Basle, Schalke 04 and Ferencvaros. After a shock 2-1 victory over Basle midway through the group after previous defeats to Feyenoord (3-0) and Schalke (0-1), they had to win against Hungarian minnows Ferencvaros to have any chance of progressing. However, they were defeated 1-0 at Murrayfield, in a night that saw then Hearts’ manager John Robertson boot future Jambos’ gaffer Csaba Laslo up the bum!

Turning to Celtic’s European record under Neil Lennon and it also doesn’t fill you with confidence.

Yes the Northern Irishman has brought the “thunder” back to Parkhead and has a side filled with graft and creative flair, but thumpings at the hands of Portuguese side SC Braga, 3-0 in Portugal and Dutch mid-table outfit FC Utrecht, 4-0 in Holland last year in both the Champions’ and Europa Leagues, means they have a lot to prove on the European stage this year.

Celtic have yet to learn their fate in the Europa League, although Hearts know they face Paksi or Tromso in the next round with the score finely poised at 1-1 from the first leg.

If all goes wrong for Scottish clubs, firstly for Dundee United tonight, then we could be left with just Rangers, assuming the Gers manage to defeat Malmo in the first place. That would then leave Rangers left to fight for the scraps of the Europa League just as the big boys of European football wake from their summer slumber.

By Joe O’Brien

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