Three defeats and one draw was the outcome for the Welsh contingent in first leg of the European first qualifying round, but all four clubs will feel that they’re still in with a chance of progressing into the next round.
Pen-y-bont are in the best position following their 1-1 draw against Santa Coloma of Andorra, and Haverfordwest County will have been more than pleased to have conceded only one goal in North Macedonia.
Connah’s Quay will be the most disappointed of the four clubs after they suffered a 2-0 defeat in Iceland, while The New Saints are also two goals behind after losing 3-1 against Swedish champions, BK Häcken.
The New Saints (1) v (3) BK Häcken | Tuesday, 18 July – 19:00 (S4C)
(Park Hall, Oswestry – Second Leg of Champions League First Qualifying Round 2023/24)
It was always going to be a tough test for The New Saints away from home against the Swedish champions, and although BK Häcken were making their first appearance in the Champions League after winning the Allsvenskan league for the first time in their history, the gulf in quality was clear to see from kick-off.
It took just seven minutes for BK Häcken to take the lead at Gothenburg on Wednesday, with pacey Ghanaian winger, Ibrahim Sadiq squeezing a volley past Connor Roberts’ near post from a tight angle.
And after less than 13 minutes it was 2-0 to the home side as Mikkel Rygaard finished off a slick move and it looked like the tie was done and dusted, and that TNS were in for a long night.
But on 32 minutes, the Saints were given a glimmer of hope as Jordan Williams battled his way down the left flank before floating a perfectly weighted cross into the path of JD Cymru Premier Golden Boot winner, Declan McManus who nodded in from 10 yards.
This was McManus’ first Champions League goal, but his 7th in all European matches for The New Saints which is a new record for most European goals scored by a JD Cymru Premier player.
The celebrations didn’t last too long for Craig Harrison’s men as BK Häcken restored their two-goal advantage four minutes later with Norwegian international, Even Hovland (29 caps) glancing his header into the net, despite the calls for offside.
And that’s how it remained, and the Saints have their keeper Connor Roberts to thank for keeping them in the tie with some fine saves in the dying minutes of the match.
The second leg will be held at Park Hall on Tuesday, 18 July, and the winners will go on to challenge either Kí Klaksvík (Faroe Islands) or Ferencvárosi TC (Hungary) in the second qualifying round, while the losers will drop into the Europa Conference League to face Slovan Bratislava (Slovakia) or Swift Hesper (Luxembourg).
Santa Coloma (1) v (1) Pen-y-bont | Thursday, 20 July – 16:00
(Estadi Comunal, Andorra la Vella – Second Leg of Europa Conference League First Qualifying Round 2023/24)
Manager, Rhys Griffiths was extremely proud of his players as Pen-y-bont secured a 1-1 draw in their first ever appearance in an European competition.
A sell-out crowd of 1,400 were at Brewery Field to witness Pen-y-bont’s European debut against Santa Coloma, the most successful club in the history of the Andorran Primera Divisio with 13 championships to date.
And there was nothing to seperate the two teams for 35 minutes of play, before the visitors were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the Bont box.
Mario Mourelo’s effort managed to beat the defensive wall, but debutant keeper Alex Harris will certainly feely that he could have done better as the ball slipped under his torso and into the goal at the near post.
In the second half, up stepped the JD Cymru Premier’s talisman, Chris Venables, who was also making his debut after his move from Bala Town over the summer.
With 66 minutes on the clock, Pen-y-bont launched a long free-kick into the opponents’ half, and Dan Jefferies’ flick-on header landed in the path of Venables who controlled and scooped the ball over the 75-capped Andorran keeper to equalise.
This was Venables’ third goal in 20 European matches, and another goal this Thursday would be the perfect early birthday gift before the striker turns 38 next week.
It was a historical occasion for the town, and the club will feel that they now have a true opportunity to progress into the Europa Conference League second qualifying round where they would face either FK Sutjeska (Montenegro) or SS Cosmos (San Marino).
Connah’s Quay (0) v (2) KA Akureyri | Thursday, 20 July – 19:00
(Park Hall, Oswestry – Second Leg of Europa Conference League First Qualifying Round 2023/24)
Connah’s Quay boss Neil Gibson stated that he was immensely disappointed and frustrated following their 2-0 defeat at Reykjavik on Thursday.
The Nomads have been constant European contenders for the past seven years, but have won just four of their 19 matches, and progressing from a tie just twice – vs Stabaek in 2016/17 and Kilmarnock in 2019/20.
KA Akureyri, on the other hand have qualified for Europe for the first time in 20 years and haven’t won any of their previous three European rounds, therefore the Nomads felt they had a real chance of advancing in the competition.
It was goalless for an hour in Iceland before Hallgrímur Mar Steingrímsson struck a beautiful half-volley with the outside of his boot from the edge of the box which flew into the top corner.
And it was Steingrímsson’s free-kick that led to the second goal on 85 minutes as the ball fell to Daníel Hafsteinsson who’s low drive deflected past a helpless Andy Firth.
Which means it will be a challenge for Connah’s Quay at Park Hall, but the Nomads are renowned for their stubbornness, and they’ll be determined to turn the tie around on Thursday.
The winners will go on to face either Dundalk (Ireland) or Bruno’s Magpies (Gibraltar) in the Europa Conference League second qualifying round.
Haverfordwest County (0) v (1) KF Shkëndija | Thursday, 20 July – 19:45 (Live online)
(Cardiff City Stadium – Second Leg of Europa Conference League First Qualifying Round 2023/24)
After a long 19-year wait, Haverfordwest County are back on the European stage, and they certainly didn’t disappoint against a strong Macedonian opposition.
Klubi i Futbollit Shkëndija have won 12 of their previous 26 European ties (46%) which includes a 5-4 aggregate victory over The New Saints in 2018.
KF Shkëndija have won the Macedonian First League on four occasions, with the latest success in 2020/21, and there was serious concern that Haverfordwest County could have been in for a hammering in Skopje.
But the Bluebirds held their ground until the interval, and it was two minutes into the second half that Shkëndija scored the only goal of the game with Adenis Shala turning in a great cross from Ardian Limani.
It was a special night for Haverfordwest County’s squad at the international stadium Toše Proeski Arena, and it will be another momentous occasion for the club on Thursday as they play the home leg at the Cardiff City Stadium.
The winners will progress to face either B36 Tórshavn (Faroe Islands) or Paide Linnameeskond (Estonia) in the Europa Conference League second qualifying round.