It seems like it was only a few weeks ago that we crowned Liverpool as the winner of the 2018-19 Champions League. And just like that, as most leagues across Europe have completed their competitions and have turned their focus to improving their clubs for next season, the smallest clubs of Europe will be kicking off next year’s edition of the Champions League, with the Preliminary round scheduled to begin on 25 June 2019.
The Preliminary round is really a four club tournament, with only one club advancing to the first qualifying round. All clubs will meet at Fadil Vokrri Stadium in Pristina, Kosovo, with semifinal matches played on 25 June. The winners of those two matches will play in a winner-take-all final three days later, and the three losing clubs will get another shot in the second qualifying round of Europa League. (Every losing club in Champions League gets another shot in Europa League until the group stages begin.)
It’s extremely unlikely that any of these clubs will make it to 2020 in the Champions League, let alone the final at Atatürk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul on 30 May 2020. But as someone that likes to look at the Small Clubs of Europe from time to time, I felt it was appropriate to take a look at the four Preliminary round clubs, especially since all are coming off a league title in their respective leagues back home. (It is called the Champions League after all).
With the draw complete, here’s how the semifinals will playout, along with a brief look at the clubs, how they reached the Champions League, and how they have fared in their most recent European competitions:
The Red Imps earned their berth in the tournament as the champions of the Gibralter Premier Division, winning the league by two points over Europa FC. They’ve now won five of the six league titles in Gibralter since the league was accepted into UEFA competitions beginning with the 2013-14 season, so this will be their fifth appearance in the Champions League (and 6th season in European competition).
Over their previous four Champions League appearances, they have an 4-2-6 record and have advanced beyond their first round on two occasions. In last year’s Champions League, they won their semifinal match in the preliminary round against La Fiorita before losing to Drita in the preliminary round final. They then went to the Europa League second round, where they lost to The New Saints over two legs.
Feronikeli makes their way to the Champions League as the champion of the Football Superleague of Kosovo. Last season was the first that the champion of the Football Superleague of Kosovo qualified for Champions League, having only gained admittance to UEFA in May 2016. Drita was the first Kosovar club to complete in the tournament when they played in the preliminary round last June, and they managed to win two matches in the preliminary round, becoming the first club from Kosovo to win a match in European competition.
Obviously, Feronikeli has not yet played in European competition, and they have a bit of a legacy to uphold as they venture forth in the Champions League this year. They’ll likely rely on a recent history of three league titles over the past five seasons to try and follow Drita’s example from last season.
Santa Coloma were the champions of the Primera Divisió of Andorra for the sixth consecutive season, resulting in a return to the Champions League. During the 2014-15 Champions League first qualifying round, Santa Coloma advanced out of their initial round for the first and only time in club (and Andorran) history, defeating Armenian club Banants on away goals (the clinching goal was scored by their goalkeeper).
Otherwise, they’ve struggled in their Champions League appearances related to their consecutive league titles. They have a 1-3-7 record over the past five tournaments. Last season, they lost to Drita in their preliminary semifinal match and were sent to the Europa League second qualifying round. They managed to win their home match against Icelandic club Valur 1-0 before succumbing 3-0 in Iceland and thus leaving the tournament.
Tre Penne were the champions of the Campionato Sammarinese di Calcio in the country of San Marino. It was their first league title since the 2015-16 season, and as such, it will be their first time back in Champions League since the 2016-17 season.
They’ve played a lot in European competition, and to say they’ve struggled would be an understatement. They have one win in 12 matches – a leg one victory against Armenian club Shirak in the first qualifying round of the 2013-14 Champions League, but have lost the other 11 matches played in UEFA competitions. In those 11 matches, they’ve been outscored 48-5, which… is not good. Nevertheless, they’ll be glad to get at least a couple of matches this year and hope the ball bounces their way a couple of times to maybe win a round for the first time ever.
Feronikeli may have a bit of host nation advantage, but Lincoln Red Imps and FC Santa Colomo have the Champions League experience. I don’t expect the winner of this round to advance much further than the first qualifying round – and I don’t like their chance at longevity in Europa League either – but they all did something that a couple dozen other clubs failed to do: winning their league title.
Action kicks off from Kosovo two weeks from today, so we’ll be waiting in anticipation to see who comes out on top in the preliminary round, while also looking forward to the draw for the first and second qualifying rounds next week. Champions League is back… even if most of the world doesn’t start to care about it until the fall.
Until next time…