THIS weeks report card of Scottish clubs in Europe once again produced mixed results in the Second Qualifying stages of the Champions League and Europa League respectively.
Celtic and Aberdeen advanced as expected, with the Champions making amends for last weeks freak result by turning over Lincoln Red Imps 3-0 and the Dons producing a solid display in their 1-0 win in Latvia against Ventspils.
Unfortunately, they weren’t joined by the Edinburgh sides, Hibs and Hearts, as they tumbled out of the Europa League.
Hibs wasn’t unexpected, they were up against a decent side in Brondby, who lead 1-0 from the first leg, and put up a good fight in Denmark by winning the return leg 1-0, only to then go out in a penalty shootout.
However, Hearts exit to Maltese side Birkirkara was a shock and their 2-1 home defeat adds to a long list of embarrassing exits by Scottish clubs on the continent.
It can be argued that Birkirkara were a better side than people give them credit for having beat West Ham this time last season, only to go out on penalties.
That’s still no excuse for Hearts, who’d taken a 0-0 draw back to Tynecastle from the first leg, against a side from a nation ranked 50th in the UEFA co-efficient.
Luck may not have been on their side, they hit the bar twice and missed a penalty, but overall their performance was way below the standards set last season and their inability to defend set pieces, often a strength for this physical side, was their undoing as they slumped to, arguably, their most embarrassing European defeat.
Hearts loss was a major blow for Scottish Football and has not helped our already poor coefficient that has already seen our top two clubs suffers losses to sides from Luxembourg and Gibraltar.
The only saving grace was that Aberdeen and Celtic advanced despite those set backs and remain the only clubs flying the flag for Scotland in Europe – and the task now gets tougher for them to progress.
Celtic face a daunting trip to Kazakhstan next week to face Astana in their conquest to reach the group stages of the Champions League.
Unlike the Hoops, Astana reached the group stages last season and acquitted themselves reasonably well with home draws against Benfica, Galatasaray and eventual finalists Atletico Madrid.
New boss Brendan Rogers will be hoping for a much improved performance to their disastrous showing in Gibraltar if they are to bring a positive result to Parkhead.
Aberdeen also face a tough examination in their bid to reach the Europa League group stages as they face up to Slovenian outfit Maribor.
They are a familiar foe to Scottish clubs having claimed the scalps of Hibs, Rangers and Celtic in recent years, the latter securing them passage to the Champions League group stages just two years ago.
Having lost to Real Sociedad and Kairat Almaty at this stage over the last two seasons, the Dons will be hoping to go one stage further and go into the playoff round for the Group stages.
It would be a major boost for our game if both sides advance in their respective ties, and it’s no exaggeration that Scottish football could do with some progress in European competition.
The failure of Hibs and Hearts to advance, particularly the latter, heaps even more pressure on Celtic and Aberdeen to get through their ties and boost a co-efficient that’s taken a battering over the last few seasons that’s seen us fall to 25th behind the likes of Cyprus and Israel.
Of course, the UEFA format designed to suit the elitist nations makes things much harder for our clubs to get into the group stages of both competitions, particularly the Europa League where Aberdeen need to play eight matches to get into the Group Stages, the same amount they played en route to the Cup Winners Cup Final in 1983.
Which is why it is imperative for all our clubs to learn quickly how to approach European ties and avoid the embarrassing exits to part time sides from Iceland, Ireland and now Malta.
Obviously, having all four sides going into the Third Qualifying round would’ve been great but there was a huge expectation that at least Hearts would have joined the Dons and Celtic in next weeks fixtures, and that certainly would’ve improved our co-efficient position further.
Regardless of club rivalry, it’s imperative to get behind our sides in Europe if Scottish football is going to rise up the co-efficient table again, the embarrassing results are a stain on the game in our country as a whole not just the individual clubs, who have all had there fair share of shocking results.
Let’s hope that Aberdeen and Celtic can continue their adventure and give our game the boost it needs!