The European adventure continues for both The New Saints and Haverfordwest County as they prepare for the second leg of their respective ties in the Europa League second qualifying round.
It’s 1-1 between The New Saints and Swift Hesperange after the first leg and the Oswestry outfit will be more than happy with the scoreline following a disappointing display at Park Hall last Tuesday.
Haverfordwest County have a little more to do as they suffered a 2-1 defeat in the away leg against B36 Tórshavn, but the Bluebirds have already shown that they’re capable of causing an upset at the Cardiff City Stadium.
If either The New Saints or Haverfordwest County beat their opponents they would progress into the third qualifying round, and after that there’s only a play-off round standing in the way between themselves and the Europa Conference League group stage.
But the pressure lies heavier than usual on these two teams’ shoulders as Wales are in real danger of losing a European spot due to recent results on the continent.
Montenegro and Andorra look likely to leap above Wales on the UEFA country ranking coefficient list, but positive results for The New Saints or Haverfordwest County could potentially save Wales’ fourth spot in Europe.
Swift Hesperange [Luxembourg] (1) v (1) The New Saints | Tuesday, 1 August – 19:00
(Stade de Luxembourg – Second Leg of Europa Conference League Second Qualifying Round 2023/24)
The New Saints had to defend patiently and be disciplined during long spells without the ball in their previous round against Swedish class-acts, BK Häcken, but the general expectation was that the Welsh champions could play more of their own game and dictate the play against Luxembourg champions, Swift Hesperange.
But the Saints lacked urgency and imagination in the opening leg on Tuesday with key players missing from the starting line-up (Declan McManus, Daniel Redmond, Jon Routledge, Dan Williams).
It was only a matter of time before Swift Hesper took the lead with Simao Martins getting on the end of a low cross with 14 minutes played at Park Hall.
The attacks were few and far between for the home side, and the only real opportunity fell to the feet of Josh Daniels who fired over the bar from six yards out.
There was not much change after the interval, and 10 minutes into the second half the visitors were awarded a penalty after Swift captain Dominik Stolz was hacked down by Josh Pask.
Stolz had already missed a penalty in the second leg of Swift’s previous tie against Slovan Bratislava, and unfortunately for him history repeated itself as Connor Roberts won the psychological battle and dived correctly down to his right to keep the score at 0-1.
Despite the setback, Swift continued to control the tempo and seemed sure to double their advantage after striking the woodwork twice in quick succession.
But with 74 minutes on the clock, TNS drew level against the run of play as Leo Smith’s corner was cleared out only as far as Rory Holden who struck a low left-footed drive that was too hot for visiting keeper, Geordan Dupire.
It was Holden’s first goal for his new club since the Northern Ireland midfielder joined the Saints from Port Vale, and it’s a crucial goal that keeps his side in the tie.
“I think we were really poor tonight, and it’s really, really unlike us… I’d like to think we can’t play as bad as that”.
That’s what TNS manager, Craig Harrison had to say at the final whistle as he looked ahead to the second leg in Luxembourg where he’ll expect a better showing from his squad.
Ahead of this campaign, Swift Hesper had only played two previous ties in Europe, losing to Legia Warsaw of Poland in 1990, before another loss to Domžale of Slovenia in 2021.
Swift Hesper have therefore never won a European round, and have never won a European match, while The New Saints have played 77 European matches, winning on 17 occasions (22%), and they’ve progressed to the next round nine times in 39 attempts (23%).
The winners will face either FC Struga (North Macedonia) or Budućnost Podgorica (Montenegro) in the Europa Conference League third qualifying round, with Struga currently 1-0 up following their first leg victory.
Haverfordwest County (1) v (2) B36 Tórshavn [Faroe Islands] | Thursday, 3 August – 19:45 (S4C)
(Cardiff City Stadium – Second Leg of Europa Conference League Second Qualifying Round 2023/24)
After an unexpected triumph over KF Shkëndija of North Macedonia in the previous round, Haverfordwest County are still living the European dream.
But the Bluebirds faced a difficult task in the Faroe Islands on Thursday night as they came up against a team packed with international experience.
B36 Tórshavn are one of the most decorated clubs in the Faroe Islands, having won the championship 11 times, and the Faroese Cup on six occasions.
Since 2018 the club has won eight of their 12 European rounds, which includes a penalty shoot-out triumph over The New Saints in 2020.
And in Gundadalur on Thursday night it took just 11 minutes for B36 to show their quality with a quick and slick short passing move which ended with Faroe Islands international, Hannes Agnarsson netting for the home team.
Haverfordwest County had to dig deep to prove how they’ve come so far under Tony Pennock with an organised and energetic defensive display that prevented B36 from testing Zac Jones between the sticks.
During the break, Haverfordwest County had somehow been locked out of their own changing room for a period and the Bluebirds came out determined to make an impact in the second half.
But just as the Welsh side were starting to get a foot-hold in the game with spells of good possession higher up the pitch, the gaps appeared at the back, and a delightful cross-field pass from Michal Przybylski (who scored vs TNS in 2020) reached left-winger Bjarki Nielsen who accelerated past Jack Wilson before setting-up Andrass Johansen who swept the ball beneath Jones to put B36 2-0 up on the hour-mark.
B36 had their confidence back, but as Haverfordwest seemed to be fading out of the tie they were given a lifeline with Martell Taylor-Crossdale scoring his first goal for his new club.
With 10 minutes left, Jack Wilson whipped in a cross from the right-hand side, and despite B36’s efforts to clear the ball fell kindly into the path of Taylor-Crossdale who showed his prowess by beating the keeper with his only chance of the match, after working tirelessly to defend from the front throughout the game.
Which means there’s only one goal in it ahead of the second leg at the Cardiff City Stadium, and Haverfordwest County have already shown in the previous round, and in the JD Cymru Premier play-offs that they thrive on the pressure, and that they are an underdog that you can never write off.
The winners will face either HNK Rijeka (Croatia) or KF Dukagjini (Kosovo) in the Europa Conference League third qualifying round, with Rijeka currently 1-0 up following their first leg victory.