Monday, June 19, 2017

Scotland's UEFA Coefficient: First Round Preview

It's a very exciting time of year here at the Android's Dungeon, as the Champions League draw...and, more to the point, the Europa League draw has been announced for the first round. Four Scottish teams are alive with potential contributions to Scotland's UEFA coefficient.

Where We Start

So let's see where we are heading into the first round of competition.

Scotland sits at #24, tightly packed in with a group of countries that I have come to view as its peers. So tightly packed, in fact, that I can't imagine them sitting in the same slot most of qualifying, like they clung to #23 in the previous year's rankings.

Recall that in qualifying, each win translates into 0.25 added to the coefficient over the next five years and each draw contributes 0.125.

First-Round Matches

Two of Scotland's clubs enter in this round, so there's a potential full point to be gained from four wins in home-and-away competition. On the other hand, Bulgaria and Kazakhstan have three teams enter in the first round, so there's a potential to lose more ground to teams from those countries. All in all, the extreme positive scenario vaults Scotland to 21st, and the extreme negative scenario drops them to 27th.

I was disappointed to see low-budget St. Johnstone grab 4th place in the league, given their lack of success in European competition in the past. I made my peace with it by realizing that this year there weren't four solid squads in the Scottish top flight. At least St. Johnstone has an excellent manager, even if they don't have a decent transfer budget.

St. Johnstone faces Lithuania's FK Trakai. Here is where I point out that Lithuania is currently rated the 50th-best league, so even though St. Johnstone finished 4th and FK Trakai finished 2nd, one would hope St. Johnstone would be more than a match for the Baltic squad.

I am going to try to use Club Elo to preview these match-ups. Trakai is ranked at an Elo of 1055. St. Johnstone is 1327. The 272-point difference between the clubs is roughly the distance between a club in the lower half of Italy's Serie A and St. Johnstone. At some point, the Club Elo web site will translate this into a win probability, but not yet.

So, anyway, I would put St. Johnstone as the heavy favorites to advance, despite their loss in the first round (on away goals) two years ago. I will say the expected result would be at least a win and a draw, netting 0.375 for the coefficient.

The other Scottish club in the first round is Rangers, one of the two biggest in Scotland. After emerging from bankruptcy, this is their first European tilt since losing in the Europa League play-off round six years ago.

Rangers face Progres Niederkor, the fourth-place Luxembourg side who have been outscored 40-1 lifetime in European competition. Rangers, who finished third, have been going on a bit of a transfer spending spree, so...this should be a cakewalk. Expect the full 0.5 towards the coefficient, and be embarrassed should even a draw sneak in there. Progres Niederkorn does not even merit a Club Elo ranking.

Second-Round Sneak Peak

The draw for the second round happened at the same time. So...

Should St. Johnstone defeat the Lithuanian runners-up, they face the winner of  Sweden's Norrkoping (Elo: 1468) and Kosovo's Prishtina (Elo: not calculated). I have to think that St. Johnstone's run ends here with a loss to Norrkoping.

If Rangers overcome the Luxembourgers, they face either Cyprus' AEL Limassol or Gibraltar's St. Joseph's. Neither has a Club Elo rating, but I have to think the fourth-placed Cypriots have the advantage in the first round. Rangers may get the better of them in the second.

Entering the Europa League second round of qualifying is Aberdeen. They dodged a bullet when their red-hot manager, Derek McInnes, chose to stay rather than ply his trade down in the English Championship with Sunderland. They have not been big players in the transfer market (unless you count losing players), but hopefully not entering until the second round will give them the time they need to make some key moves.

By the way, I had previously had Aberdeen entering in the first round, due to Scotland's #25 ranking from 2015/16. However, with Manchester United winning the Europa League, this opened up another slot higher up, and bumped a several teams to enter in later rounds. On the one hand, it feels like this makes the coefficient less important, since even dropping to #25 didn't matter. On the other hand -- good thing they didn't drop down to #27.

Aberdeen (Elo: 1413) faces the winner of Kazakhstan's Ordabasy (Elo: 1269) and Bosnia-Herzegovina's Siroki Brijeg (Elo: 1197). McInnes will chase his dream of the Europa League group stage at least into the third round.

In the less-exciting Champions League (am I the only one who feels this way?), Celtic (Elo: 1623) debut against Northern Ireland's Linfield (Elo: 1041) or San Marino's SP La Fiorita (Elo: 689). Look for Linfield to collect quite the windfall in gate receipts to have Celtic come across the Irish Sea and destroy them. Brendan Rodgers' boys got embarrassed in Gibraltar last year, but they are too experienced to suffer a repeat.
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