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Aberdeen’s potential route to the UEFA Conference League groups is one fraught with danger

The Aberdeen fans display a banner ahead of kick off against HNK Rijeka in the Europa League in 2019.
The Aberdeen fans display a banner ahead of kick off against HNK Rijeka in the Europa League in 2019.

Feyenoord, Standard Liege, Spartak Moscow, Basel, Apollon Limassol, Sparta Prague and Astana – just some of the teams Aberdeen could potentially face in the Uefa Conference League second qualifying round.

Aberdeen may have dropped down into the newly-formed third tier of European cup competition, but that is unlikely to make the bid to reach group stage action any easier.

By defeating Livingston at the weekend, the Reds secured European qualification for an eighth successive season.

However, after seven seasons in the Europa League, it will be all change next season as manager Stephen Glass will lead his side into the newly-created Conference League.

The tournament was created by Uefa in an apparent attempt to offer a clearer route to the lucrative group stages for smaller nations.

UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin said on its launch: “The new UEFA club competition makes UEFA’s club competitions more inclusive than ever before.

“There will be more matches for more clubs, with more associations represented in the group stages.”

In theory, great. In practice, is it really any easier than the Europa League?

Aberdeen will enter the Uefa Conference League at the second qualifying round on Thursday July 22, with the draw to determine their opponents made on June 16.

Any notion this tournament is a wilderness for minnow nations is way off the mark.

Yes, the smaller nations will have more representation, but there remains big hitters from major leagues – even as early as the second qualifying round stage.

UEFA’s new tournament starts in July with Aberdeen entering at the second qualifying round.

Big hitters could be lurking for the Dons

Potentially lurking in the second round draw for Aberdeen could be Dutch side Feyenoord, former European and Uefa Cup winners, who have won the Eredivisie 15 times.

Managed by former Rangers boss Dick Advocaat, Feyenoord face a European play-off and could qualify for the Conference at the second round stage.

Big hitters from Russia could also enter at the same stage as Aberdeen.

Only six points separate Ruben Kazan, Spartak Moscow, Lokomotiv Moscow, PFC Sochi, CSKA Moscow and Dynamo Moscow in the race to finish runners-up behind runaway league leaders Zenit St Petersburg.

Fourth spot in Russia secures entry to the second qualifying round of the Uefa Conference League – so one of those chasing pack of six could be a potential opponent for Aberdeen.

From Switzerland, it is a fight between Basel and Servette for the Conference League second qualifying round.

In Belgium, Standard Liege, Gent, Oostende and Mechelen are involved in play-off group outside the main championship group to enter at this stage.

One of those four will go into the draw alongside Aberdeen.

Returning attacker Ryan Hedges scores Aberdeen’s second goal at Livingston as Euro qualification is confirmed.

Other clubs confirmed for the Conference League second qualifying round or currently occupying a position which would deliver that berth include Trabzonspor (Turkey), Sparta Prague (Czech Republic) PAOK (Greece), Partizan Belgrade (Serbia), IF Elfsborg (Sweden), Valarenga, Molde, Rosenborg (Norway) and Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel).

Other potential opponents are Torpedo-BelAZ Zhodino (Belarus), Neftci Baku (Azerbaijan), Sumgayit, Lokomotiv Plovdiv, CSKA Sofia, (Bulgaria), CFR Cluj, Universitatea Craiova (Romania) and Pogon Szczecin (Poland).

Familiar faces will also be in the second qualifying round

Aberdeen could also be pitched in against Apollon Limassol in the second qualifying round.

The Dons crashed out of Europa League 3-2 on aggregate to the Cypriot side at the third qualifying round in 2017.

Aberdeen fans cheer on the Dons against Cypriot side Apollon Limassol in the Europa League at Pittodrie.

Awaiting in the draw could also be a gruelling flight to Kazakhstan with Shakhter Karagandy,Β  Astana and BATE Borisov all in contention to enter at the second qualifying round.

Aberdeen exited at the third qualifying round of the Europa League to Kairat Almaty of Kazakhstan 3-2 on aggregate in 2015.

Almaty was 4,745 miles away and required a 12-hour flight.

Toronto, New York, Barbados, Delhi – just some cities closer to Aberdeen than Almaty in Kazakhstan.

Progress through that potentially tricky introduction to the new Conference League and, as expected, the ties become increasingly more difficult.

Enter Club Brugge and Galatasaray

Entering the tournament at the third qualifying round will be clubs like Club Brugge from Belgium, one of the six clubs from Russia chasing a runners-up finish, or Galatasaray and Sturm Graz.

Ukranian side FC Shakhtar Donetsk could also enter at this stage as they are currently second in their league and 13 points behind leaders Dinamo Kiev.

However, they are just four points ahead of Lorya Luhansk, who sit in third.

Third placed in Ukraine secures Uefa Conference League qualification.

Fenerbahce currently occupy third spot in the Turkish Super Lig that would secure entry to the third qualifying round.

Then big guns like Liverpool and Lazio enter

If Aberdeen can progress beyond the third qualifying round of a European tournament for the first time in eight straight attempts, the real big hitters await in the play-offs.

Look at the clubs who currently occupy the league position in their respective leagues which would see them enter into the Conference League at the play-offs.

Still think the Uefa Conference League is a “diddy” competition?

  • Liverpool – sitting seventh in the Premier League. It will be West Ham if Chelsea finish in the top six
  • Bayer Leverkusen – currently sixth in the German Bundesliga
  • Real Betis – currently seventh in the Spanish La Liga
  • Lazio – currently sixth in Italian Serie A
  • Lens – currently fifth in French Ligue 1
  • Braga – currently fourth in the Portuguese Primeira Liga.

With the mass roll-out of the coronavirus vaccine across the United Kingdom, the hope is there will be fans, albeit in limited numbers, inside Pittodrie for start of the European campaign on July 22.

Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson lifts the Premier League trophy in July 2020.

The Uefa Conference League offers the potential of landing a glamour tie against a top side – but with that also comes the flip side of the route to the group becoming more perilous.

Aberdeen will need to progress through three knock-out stages to reach the group stages in a tournament whichΒ  could be populated by dangerous teams.

It further highlights what the Reds blew in crashing out in the Scottish Cup to Dundee United.

The Scottish Cup winners go straight into the Europa League at the play-off stage – just a single two legged knock-out tie away from the groups.

Even if they lose that, the eventual Scottish Cup winners will then drop into the Conference League groups and will be guaranteed European football until at least December 9.

Aberdeen supporters were left wondering “what if?” when they lost to Dundee United in the quarter-final earlier this month.

They could yet be wondering “what if?” again in summer if the draw in the Conference League proves to be unkind.

This article originally appeared on the Evening Express website. For more information, read about our new combined website.