Crusaders and Linfield begin their European adventures

The Belfast sides are on their travels in Thursday’s first-leg action in the Europa Conference qualification campaign

Stephen Baxter
The recently-retired Stephen Baxter has stayed on to guide Crusaders through their European campaign, which starts on Thursday (David Maginnis/David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press)

CRUSADERS and Linfield are both on their travels on Thursday evening when they face Welsh and Icelandic opposition respectively in the first round of qualification for this season’s Uefa Europa Conference League.

The Seaview outfit face Caernarfon of Wales, whilst the Blues are off to Iceland to play Stjarnan. Both are first-leg ties.

Crues’ manager Stephen Baxter will be hoping for one last hurrah on the continent, after extending his stay at the north Belfast outfit until the European campaign comes to an end. He will be replaced by Declan Caddell as boss for the upcoming domestic season.

Baxter’s men qualified for this competition by way of a dramatic last-minute Jordan Owens winner in the final of the European play-off against Coleraine. They will be hoping for a repeat of the first-round victory in last year’s competition when they saw off Finnish-side FC Haka 3-2 on aggregate, only to narrowly miss out against Norwegian giants Rosenborg in round two.

Their opponents also made it through to Europe via their own domestic play-off system, having finished fifth in the regular season, and this will be their first venture onto the continent.

Despite the loss of Cymru Premier player of the season Sion Bradley, manager Richard Davies will be hopeful of causing a few upsets of their own.

Baxter’s side will have watched Caernarfon’s 2-1 pre-season win over Cliftonville at Solitude earlier in the summer to try and gain some insight into a team that showed some flashes of skill and endeavour on the day.

The Hatchetmen will have to get used to life after Paul Heatley. The diminutive winger retired at the end of last season after a glittering career at the Crues, and it will be up to the likes of Ben Kennedy to step up at the highest level.

Given the potential opponents that they could have been matched with, Crusaders fans will fancy their chances of getting through this tie, but a solid first leg is essential.

Meanwhile, in the northern reaches of Europe, David Healy’s Linfield travel to the town of Garðabær, a settlement of 18,000 on the outskirts of the Icelandic capital Reykjavik.

Having finished runners-up to Larne in last year’s Premiership, Linfield will be hoping to make an early-season statement and pick up a victory over a side currently sixth in the Icelandic league.

Like many ties against European competition, local teams face sides that are midway through their domestic campaigns and will be at the peak of their fitness, and that is again the case this evening.

Most Blues fans are expecting Healy to spend big in the transfer window to compete with the likes of Larne in the season ahead, but that hope has not turned into reality yet.

Cameron Ballantyne has joined from St Johnstone, whilst Ballymena United defender Scott Whiteside has also been added, but the Blues have also shed some serious talent, with Daniel Finlayson and Matthew Clarke both leaving for Livingston in Scotland and young Braiden Graham on his way to Everton just this week. An early exit in Europe will not help the coffers at Windsor Park.

Once more, expectation will be placed on Joel Cooper, Kyle McLean and Chris McKee to come up with the goods and there will be no better place to start that than this evening on the west coast of Iceland.