IRISH TEAMS IN EUROPE: PAPERING OVER THE CRACKS

Cracks are easy to paper over, sometimes, but at the moment the Airtricity League feels like a massive crack in the tectonic plate surface of Irish football. The magma of Monaghan United burst out and left the league two weeks ago, and now there's more rumbling coming out of Dundalk.

The paper is European football. Last season saw Shamrock Rovers make history by becoming the first Irish men's team to make the group stages of a European competition. The expectation is that this year, some other Irish sides will be able to provide a welcome distraction from the perilous state the league is in.

When the draw was made for the UEFA Champions League qualifiers, leaving the Hoops with Lithuanian champions FK Ekranas, the consensus was that it was an easy draw. Ekranas lost to Cork City in the 2005/06 UEFA Cup and the feeling was that Rovers, after last year's exploits, would be better equipped to deal with them.

But Tallaght Stadium is not a happy place at the moment. Stephen Kenny, who took over from Michael O'Neill as manager when he went to manage Northern Ireland, is under considerable pressure. Last Friday's emphatic 4-0 defeat to arch-rivals Bohemians was symptomatic of their poor league form, which leaves them trailing leaders Sligo Rovers by eight points.

Although Shamrock Rovers will still be regarded as favourites, Ekranas can probably take heart from their dismal form of late. The optimism, then, will have to come from elsewhere. Ireland's Europa League hopefuls are Sligo Rovers, St. Patrick's Athletic and Bohemians.

Sligo Rovers are the side with the most expectation on their shoulders, yet they probably have the toughest draw of all the Airtricity League sides. 1969 European Cup semi-finalists Spartak Trnava may not have the quality which once saw them regularly compete with the giants of European football, but they will be stiff opposition nonetheless. The Bit O'Red lead the Airtricity League, though, and are confident of seeing off the Slovakians.

The past few seasons have been marked by Sligo Rovers playing some of the most attractive football in the country, but never quite doing enough to win the league. Manager Paul Cook became renowned for his tiki-taka-esque football, which saw Rovers win two FAI Cups, but they always seemed to fall away late in the season. But Cook is now gone, replaced by Ian Baraclough.

The former Scunthorpe United manager was not a universally popular appointment when he was announced as manager at the start of the season, but has brought with him a pragmatic approach which sees the Bit O'Red top of the league and in a commanding position. 2011 saw Rovers disappoint many by losing to Vorskla Poltava in the third qualifying round of the Europa League, but this season hopes are high that they can progress.

Another side riding high in domestic football are St. Patrick's Athletic. Pat's are playing an expansive 4-3-3 formation which has seen them move into second place, just four points off Sligo Rovers. Like Baraclough, Liam Buckley was not universally welcomed when he was appointed as manager at the start of the season.

But he has assembled a strong side featuring Chris Forrester – one of the brightest talents in the domestic game and the player who many believe will be one to follow in the footsteps of James McClean and Keith Fahey and become a success in England.

During his playing career, Buckley made the rare step of moving from the League of Ireland to a foreign club that wasn't English or Scottish. He briefly joined Vancouver Whitecaps in 1981, before departing in earnest for KSV Waregem. Then Buckley moved on to Racing Santander, where he made his debut in the Camp Nou, and Montreux-Sports. As a manager, Buckley was in charge when the now-defunct Sporting Fingal ran Maritimo close in 2010.

Pat's are one of the most consistent Irish sides in European competition. Last season they progressed through two rounds of Europa League qualifying, beating IBV and Shakhter Karagandy before going out to Karpaty Lviv. Recent seasons have seen them defeat Krylia Sovetov and Elfsborg. This year, Icelandic side IBV – who provided the opposition at this stage last year – are on the menu again.

Should the Saints, as is expected, defeat IBV for the second time in two years, a tougher task awaits in the second qualifying round. NK Siroki Brijeg, runners-up in the Bosnian Premier League last season, look like an accomplished side. Last season Siroki were beaten 3-0 on aggregate by Olimpija Llubljana, who went on to beat another Irish side: Bohemians.

For them, this Europa League campaign comes at a strange time. The Gypsies, formerly a major force in Irish football, are another club with straitened finances. All of the big-wage players from previous years are gone, and in their place are youngsters and a smattering of experienced (if unspectacular) players. But Bohs have been over-achieving all season, as evidenced by the aforementioned 4-0 win over Shamrock Rovers.

Their youngsters have seen them rise comfortably above the relegation zone, with the Phibsboro club now sitting in seventh. Some of the younger players in the team – many of whom have been brought up in the club's underage set-up – have really impressed. Manager Aaron Callaghan, who arrived with relatively little pedigree in management, has transformed this squad into an unexpectedly competitive side.

Bohs have perhaps been lucky with their Europa League draw. On paper, their fixture with Þór Akureyri gives them a great chance of progression. Þór are currently fourth in the Icelandic 1.deild (second tier). They were relegated from the Urvalsdeild last season but qualify for the Europa League after losing in the Icelandic Cup final to Champions League-qualified KR Reykjavik.

Bohemians only qualify for the competition themselves thanks to a technicality. Third-placed Derry City were set to qualify ahead of fifth-placed Bohs, but UEFA rules barred Derry from competing since they went into liquidation two years ago. The Gypsies will be confident of a win over Þór, but Mlada Boleslav, fourth in the Czech Gambrinus Liga, await them in the second round.

Whether any of the sides can come close to repeating Shamrock Rovers' success of last year is, naturally, unclear. But for a week or two at least, headlines can be diverted from the crushing reality of the Airtricity League. Clubs will go on struggling, of course, but for a while they can dream.

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