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NI hopefuls draw plenty of comfort

By Graham Luney

While a potential first ever meeting between Linfield and Celtic is enough to capture the interest of anyone with even the slightest interest in football, other Irish League sides also enjoyed the luck of the draw yesterday.

Our teams often face horrendous challenges on the continent, but the draw at the headquarters of European governing body Uefa in Nyon has left sides optimistic of progressing.

In the Europa League qualifiers, Crusaders take on Latvians FK Liepaja, while Ballymena United will wrestle with Odd BK of Norway. Coleraine's opponents FC Haugesund are also from Norway, while Derry City go up against FC Midtjylland of Denmark.

If the Crues can see off Liepaja, Stephen Baxter's side will tackle Shakhtyor Soligorsk from Belarus or Suduva in Lithuania.

United are hoping to secure a win which will book a date with either Bala Town or Vaduz in Liechtenstein in the second round. A victory over Haugesund would see the Bannsiders take on either Lech Poznan or Pelister, while the Candystripes will face Ferencvaros or Jelgava if they progress.

Fourth-placed finishers in the Virsliga last campaign, FK Liepaja last season qualified for the Champions League but lost in the second qualifying round to Red Bull Salzburg. Midfielder Janis Ikaunieks, a Latvian international, is their key player.

FK Haugesund finished fourth in the Tippeligaen last season. They are a relatively young club having only been formed in 1993 when two clubs, Djerv 1919 and SK Haugur, merged. Slovakian international Filip Kiss, formerly of Cardiff City, is their most notable player.

Originally a multi-sports club in Skien, Norway, only the football club remains of Odd BK, who will battle the Sky Blues. Officially the oldest club in Norway, ratified by their Club of Pioneers status, they finished third in the Tippeligaen last season to set up this tie. Their key man is Finnish midfielder Riku Riski.

United will play away first on Thursday, June 29.

You may remember FC Midtjylland's clash with Manchester United in last year's Europa League - this time around they'll have to get past Derry in the qualifiers to potentially get another crack at the knockouts.

The Danes finished third in the Superliga last year and boast former Tottenham and Holland ace Rafael van der Vaart in a squad that contains three international players.

Selected Europa League ties: First qualifying round (to be played on June 29 and July 6): St Johnstone v Trakai, Odd v Ballymena United, Bala Town v Vaduz, Connah's Quay Nomads v HJK Helsinki, Rangers v Progres Niederkorn, Crusaders v Liepaja, Levadia Tallinn v Cork City, Midtjylland v Derry City, Lyngby v Bangor City, Haugesund v Coleraine, Stjarnan v Shamrock Rovers

Second qualifying round (ties to be played on July 13 and 20): Slovan Bratislava or Pyunik v Lyngby or Bangor City, Stjarnan or Shamrock Rovers v Mlada Boleslav, AEK Larnaca or Lincoln (Gibraltar) v Levadia Tallinn or Cork City, Haugesund or Coleraine v Lech Poznan or Pelister, IFK Norrkoping or Prishtina v St Johnstone or Trakai, Crusaders or Liepaja v Shakhtyor Soligorsk or Suduva, Rangers or Progres Niederkorn v AEL Limassol or St Joseph's, Bala Town or Vaduz v Odd or Ballymena United, Aberdeen v Ordabasy or Siroki Brijeg, Ferencvaros or Jelgava v Midtjylland or Derry City, Dacia Chisinau or Shkendija v Connah's Quay Nomads or HJK Helsinki.

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