As St Johnstone lifted the Scottish Cup on Saturday, they didn’t just hoist aloft the last silverware of the season but also finalised Scotland’s entries into European competition.
Next season sees five Scottish teams embark on a continental adventure, with a new format meaning the sides will start in qualification for three competitions as UEFA add the new Conference League to the mix.
In theory, the change to the structure, along with Scotland’s improved co-efficient and rise up the rankings, should make it easier for our teams to qualify for the group stages and play more games.
Each will have a different starting point and set of challenges, as well as potential consolation prizes, in the months ahead, so we’ve looked at each in turn and laid out the road to glory.
The path to the Champions League group stage has traditionally been a tough one for Premiership winners, with Celtic’s qualifying process in recent years seeming to start just a moment after the previous season ends.
Instead of the repeated hurdles of four qualifying rounds, Scotland’s improved standing means the champions now only face two two-legged ties to reach the elite stage.
Rangers enter the competition in the third qualifying round and they’ll learn their first opponents when the draw is made on July 19, with first-leg games on August 3/4 and the return match a week later. The team will be in the ‘Champions Path’ so can only face the winners of other leagues, meaning they’ll avoid the third-placed side from Ligue 1, among others competing at this stage.
Make it through that tie and only a play-off stands between the Scottish champions and the group stages. Matches will be played on 17/18 August and 24/25 August.
What if it goes wrong?
A defeat in the third qualifying round would see Rangers go straight into the Europa League play-off round to compete for entry into the group stage of the second-tier competition. Fail in that and the Ibrox side would still have European competition, going into the Conference League groups.
Making it through to the Champions League play-off but being knocked out of the top competition would see Steven Gerrard’s side go straight into the Europa League group stage.
After a disappointing season where Celtic let their grip on the title go after nine successive seasons, there was one tiny consolation. Scotland’s improved standing means that this season’s Premiership runners-up still get a crack at the Champions League.
As you might expect, the task of reaching the group stage and taking on the likes of PSG and Manchester City is a little more difficult for Celtic’s new boss than it will be for Steven Gerrard. The Parkhead side start a round earlier, entering in the second qualifying round and go through the ‘League Path’.
Celtic are guaranteed to be among the seeds when the draw is made on June 16, with plenty of time to study their first opponents with the first game on July 20/21 and the return leg a week later.
From there it’s straightforward. Make it through the second and third qualifying rounds, then the play-offs and it’s Champions League football until Christmas at least.
Exit at the first hurdle and it’s into the third qualifying round of the Europa League. Fail there and there’s a third chance of staying in Europe via the Conference League play-off. Reach the Europa League play-off round and defeat means Conference League group stage football is the final consolation.
Exit in the Champions League third qualifying round or the play-off and it’s straight into the Europa League groups.
The new set-up means Scotland’s only direct entrant into the Europa League is the Scottish Cup winners. St Johnstone were already assured of a place in Conference League qualifying but their victory at Hampden means they move up a level and take the Europa place instead.
It had been assumed, based on projections for next season’s European competition, that the Scottish Cup winners were guaranteed to enter qualifying at the play-off stage. That would guarantee European football until Christmas since losing the play-off would mean going straight into the Conference League.
As things stand, that isn’t the case. The most recent access list the Scottish FA received from UEFA shows our cup winners as entrants in the third qualifying round and they haven’t at any point said a play-off place was guaranteed.
Final placings and seedings for all three of the competitions are still subject to change though, not least because the Europa League and Champions League finals have still to be played.
UEFA say they won’t finalise the listings until the beginning of June so there could yet be a positive twist in the tale for Callum Davidson’s side after a hugely eventful season. But for now, St Johnstone are looking to the draw on July 19.
It looks like the Perth side will be seeds for the third qualifying round, which is played on August 5 and 12. Losing at the first challenge would see the team drop to the Conference League play-off. Win, and it’s through to the play-off round and a shot at the group stages and millions in revenue along with matches against some big European names.
The big difference this year is the consolation prize for falling at the play-off stage – defeat at that stage would see St Johnstone go straight into the Conference League group stage and play European football through until Christmas.
Hibernian and Aberdeen
Scotland’s improved co-efficient gives the Premiership two places in the newly-created tournament. The Conference League is designed specifically to give sustained continental competition for teams who find the top end of the game out of reach financially these days, but there’s still plenty on offer in terms of prize money and potential glamour ties.
Both Scottish sides enter in the second qualifying round and have a third qualifying round and a play-off to negotiate if they want group games. It won’t be easy, and there will be bigger names dropping into each round as teams get knocked out of the Europa League, but the task on paper should be easier than the Europa League qualifying challenge that’s been a struggle for our representatives over the last few years.
Lose at any stage and there’s no safety net this time. Win and each stage will bring prize money, ticket sales and potential TV money that could help with progress at home as well as abroad.
All to play for.