In Focus: What to look out for in the Europa Conference League play-offs
The Europa Conference League play-offs begin tomorrow — and the inaugural edition of UEFA's new competition has already got tongues wagging.
The group stage will feature European minnows some fans will not be familiar with, while lesser-known players will be looking to make a name for themselves.
But before the draw for that takes place next Thursday, there are the play-off first-leg ties to look forward to — with plenty of tantalising fixtures in store.
Here are some of the key things to look out for when the matches get under way.
What a story it has been for Union Berlin.
A dramatic victory against Stuttgart in the 2018-19 Bundesliga promotion play-off set the side from Kopenick up for a debut season in the German top flight.
Simply remaining in the league was considered a tough ask for Die Eisernen but they exceeded expectations by some distance.
The team from East Berlin have shown that a fan-led club can thrive at the top level — securing seventh in the table last term to earn this shot in Europe, where they will face Finnish side KuPS.
Look out for 24-year-old Nigerian striker Taiwo Awoniyi, who joined permanently from Liverpool for £6.5million earlier this summer and scored in the team’s opening Bundesliga fixture against Bayer Leverkusen.
Shamrock Rovers’ reward for seeing off Albanian champions Teuta is a trip to Tallinn, where they will face Estonian outfit FC Flora.
With Bohemians and Dundalk exiting the tournament in the previous round, the League of Ireland champions are the only Irish team still in European competition this season.
The two sides have met before. Rovers came out on top in the second round of Champions League qualifying in 2011, before being beaten 3-0 on aggregate by FC Copenhagen.
They did go on to compete in the Europa League group stage that season, becoming the first Irish team to do so after defeating Partizan Belgrade in the qualifying play-off.
The Europa Conference League gives Rovers the chance to reach a European group stage once again and they will be looking to avoid any slip-ups across their two-legged tie.
Portuguese test for Tottenham
Tottenham’s meeting with Pacos de Ferreira makes them the first English side to be involved in European competition this season.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s men will go into that game on a high following their 1-0 victory over Premier League champions Manchester City last Sunday.
They will hope to take that form into Europe, where Nuno will no doubt rotate his squad and explore the various options available to him.
It could also provide an opportunity to hand a debut to new signing Bryan Gil, who was an unused substitute against City.
Basel’s Brazilian star
FC Basel striker Arthur Cabral has a goal and an assist in each of his side’s four games in Europa Conference League qualifying so far.
The Brazilian, 23, also has five goals in three matches in the Swiss league this season, with four of those coming in Basel’s most recent fixture against Servette.
He will be looking to keep that record going against Swedish opponents Hammarby IF in the hope of showcasing his goalscoring talents in the group stage.
On the Rennes
Rennes are flying the flag for France and are one of the best sides to watch when it comes to looking for future stars.
Their flagship player is 18-year-old midfielder starlet Eduardo Camavinga, who has been linked with a host of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Rennes also boast exciting teenage wingers Jeremy Doku and Kamaldeen Sulemana, as well as 21-year-old centre back Loic Bade.
They will be hoping those players, along with their more seasoned campaigners, will be enough to see them through against Norwegian side Rosenborg.
LASK stop for the Saints?
St Johnstone put up a good fight against Turkish giants Galatasaray in their Europa League qualifier, drawing 1-1 in Istanbul but eventually losing 5-3 on aggregate.
Dropping into the Europa Conference League provides them with another chance to qualify for the group stage of a European tournament for the first time but getting past Austrian side LASK will not be easy.
The Linz-based club reached the last 16 of the Europa League in 2019-20 and secured a surprise 3-3 draw with Tottenham in the same competition last season.
With fellow Scottish outfit Aberdeen facing Azerbaijani side Qarabag, hopes are high that at least one of the pair can progress.