Belfast Telegraph

How the Irish League champions will get a double European chance next season

By Gareth Hanna

Either Crusaders or Coleraine will be parading the Gibson Cup at the end of the Danske Bank Premiership season and looking ahead to a Champions League qualifier.

But recent changes announced to UEFA's European qualification process means the Irish League champions will be afforded a second bite at the European cherry, starting this summer.

As things stand, the Premiership winners enter the first qualifying round of the Champions League, playing in the Champions route. On top of that, the Irish Cup winners, the Irish League runners-up and the winners of the European play-offs enter the first qualifying round of the Europa League.

All of that is staying as it is but one subtle change could have significant ramifications for the league's top team, be it the Crues or the Bannsiders, as well as Cork, who won last year's League of Ireland.

Teams who exit the Champions League qualification in the Champions route will now be shipped into a new Europa League Champions route, giving them a second chance at raking in some more European cash and even making the group stages.

Last year, Linfield exited the Champions League at the hands of Celtic in the second qualifying round and their European journey was over. This year, a similar exit would leave them two ties away from the Europa League group stages.

Should the Irish League champions go out at their first Champions League hurdle (first qualifying round), they will enter the second qualifying round of their Europa League pathway.

Progression to the second round of the Champions League process and subsequent exit (as Linfield suffered last season) would push them into the third qualifying round of the Europa League along with 19 other teams.

The ten winners of those ties will progress to the final hurdle, the Europa League play-offs, alongside six teams eliminated from the Champions League third qualifying round. The eight winners of those ties will earn their spot in the Europa League group stages.

This summer's UEFA Champions League first qualifying round ties will take place on 10/11 and 17/18 July. The Europa League first qualifying rounds are scheduled for July 12 and July 19.

Northern Ireland is currently ranked 47th of 55 nations in the UEFA coefficients while the Republic of Ireland is ranked 38th. If Northern Ireland was to fall one more place, the Irish League's European play-off winner would have to enter the Europa League at the preliminary stage rather than the first qualifying round.

UEFA announced further changes to their European rules on Tuesday morning. Teams reaching the Champions League, Europa League and UEFA Super Cup finals will now be allowed to name 12 substitutes and if any knock-out game progresses to extra-time, teams will be allowed to introduce a fourth replacement.

Furthermore, England's top four teams will now qualify directly for the Champions League group stages as will teams from Italy, Germany and Spain as well as the current European Cup holders and the Europa League winners.

Two teams from those four nations, plus France, will also qualify directly for the Europa League. That means from next season, England's top six will all be guaranteed a spot in the Group Stage of either the Champions League or the Europa League, without having to win a two-legged qualifier as in previous years.

Kick-off times in both the Champions League and Europa League will now be staggered at 5.55pm and 8pm (GMT).

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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