First Round ReviewBefore we preview the second round, let's recap what happened in the first round. Hearts squeaked by Estonian side Infonet FC 2-1 at home before taking a definitive 4-2 away win. End result: 0.5 points for the coefficient, and a second-round date with the Maltese team Birkirkara FC.
Aberdeen got two late goals for a 3-1 home win against part-time Luxembourgers Fola Esch, before falling to an embarrassing 1-0 loss that left them one goal away from a first-round exit. End result: 0.25 points for the coefficient, and a second-round matchup with Latvian side Ventspils. Note that if Aberdeen had won this match, that would have been an extra 0.25 carried through for the coefficient for an entire 5-year period.
Looking at the above chart excerpt from Bert Kassies' excellent site, not much has changed among teams within two points of Scotland. Of most note is the bad round Poland had, seeing one team knocked out, only picking up 0.25 points and falling behind Denmark. I included Norway in the picture just to note that they had trouble too, having a team knocked out to the fourth-placed Welsh side.
So where are we (as fans of Scotland -- specifically Scotland's UEFA coefficient) and where are we headed? I have two different ways of looking at things.
Reasons for PessimismAmong the teams within two points of Scotland, only Poland did worse -- Denmark, Azerbaijan, Cyprus and Israel all did better. If Scotland is not only going to retain their ranking, but improve, they need to gain ground, not lose it.
Going into the second round, Hearts has to face a Maltese side that took West Ham United to penalties last year. Aberdeen looked shaky in both of their matches -- Ventspils didn't. And Hibs, a second-tier club, has to face Brøndby, who just advanced with a 10-1 aggregate score. (Note that losses to Brøndby both hurt Scotland and help Denmark.) Celtic should be fine against a team from Gibraltar, but it's later rounds where we worry about their performance slipping.
Reasons for Optimism
Despite not quite keeping pace with most of the countries ranked in the twenties, Scotland didn't slip more than a quarter-point compared to any of them. And it did keep all teams alive to earn more points.
Further, my past analysis indicates that a typical year gives Scotland a coefficient contribution of 3.75 -- 3 from Celtic and 0.75 from everybody else. Well, they've already got 0.75 from everybody else, so things are looking better than usual, with all three non-Celtics able to add to that. Bringing Scotland's coefficient gradually up into the mid-teens requires the non-Celtics to contribute consistent totals of 2-2.25 points/year -- that's at least mathematically possible in the second round alone.
And despite the possibility of upsets, three of the opponents are from leagues ranked 40, 50 and 52 out of 54 European countries. And although Hibs have a tough road ahead, their new manager did take Celtic to the knockout stages of the Champions League a few years back, so they may do better in Europe than they have any right to.
Second Round Preview
Celtic starts things off with Champions League matches against Lincoln Red Imps, who won the Gibraltar Premier League for the 14th time. Celtic has no business being in Europe if they can't dispatch these guys handily. They should pull out the full 0.5 points for the coefficient, but it's certainly possible that they get way ahead in the first leg and settle for a draw or a narrow loss in the second to rest their players.
Hibs face Brøndby (honestly, I will never tire of putting ø in my posts). I don't hold out much hope here, but it would be nice to see Hibs grab 0.125 or even 0.25, even if they don't advance.
Hearts face Birkirkara. The Maltese have never made it out of the second round of European competition, and I don't see this year being any different. Like Celtic, Hearts might drop some points by not going all out in the second leg, but after their impressive performance in the second leg of the first round, I think everyone would expect two wins and 0.5 points.
Aberdeen takes on Ventspils. If Aberdeen can shake off some rust, they are certainly capable of a good result, but the full 0.5 points, or even advancement is not assured.
I think a good outcome of the second round would be to see Scotland with 1.875 points or more for the year, with three out of four teams advancing. If two (or fewer) teams advance and Scotland only comes out of this with 1.5 points or fewer, things will not be looking up.