Celtic go direct into the Champions League group stage; Rangers will join them if they beat PSV and drop into the Europa League if they lose; Aberdeen play BK Hacken for a Europa League spot, with Conference League action guaranteed; Hearts and Hibs are in the Conference League playoffs
As we approach the end of August, often it has been a story of ‘what if’ when it comes to Scottish clubs competing in Europe.
Motherwell being stunned by Sligo Rovers and Dundee United equalling a record loss for a Scottish club against AZ Alkmaar left a sour taste in the mouth last season.
However, this time around things are very different. Never has there been five Scottish clubs feature in the group stages in the same season – but that dream is very much alive heading into the play-offs.
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Hibernian and Hearts enjoyed a memorable night on Thursday to reach the Europa Conference League playoffs, with ties against Aston Villa and PAOK respectively awaiting the capital clubs.
The Champions League dream is still alive for Rangers, while Aberdeen will hope to reach the Europa League.
Plus, Celtic have their place among Europe’s elite secured with another Champions League group stage campaign around the corner.
What the history books say…
Between 2008 and 2022, Celtic and Rangers were the only Scottish teams to feature in European group stages, with Hearts ending that run last season.
Aberdeen, Hibs, Dundee United, Motherwell and St Johnstone have all tried and failed in recent years to get beyond the play-off stage across various competitions.
It has therefore been down to the Old Firm clubs, and Hearts, to improve that all-important coefficient to its current position of ninth.
It is Scotland’s place inside the top 15 which means they have up to two teams in the Champions League conversation and five overall entering European competition.
The lack of wins in the Champions and Conference Leagues last term will hamper the coefficient from season 2024-25, when the new 36-team Champions League group stage format begins.
European action is something Celtic fans have been accustomed to – but last season was their first foray back into the Champions League group stages since returning boss Brendan Rodgers got them there during his first spell at the club.
The Hoops – under Ange Postecoglou – struggled to make an impact in that 2022/23 campaign, finishing bottom of Group F with two points.
This time around – Rodgers will be hoping to create more happy memories akin to some of those during his previous two Champions League group-stage campaigns with the club.
He managed Celtic 42 times in European competition, winning 16 matches.
They drew with Manchester City home and away and secured their first away win in the competition with a 3-0 victory against Anderlecht in Brussels.
However, alongside the good times there have been some concerning results. Celtic lost 7-0 away to Barcelona in their first season under Rodgers with a 7-1 defeat at PSG in their second.
The manager will also be keen to forget his first-ever European game in charge of the Parkhead side – a 1-0 defeat to Gibraltarian minnows Lincoln Red Imps in the first leg of a second-round qualifier.
Neil Lennon was in charge when the club last progressed to the knock-out stages in the 2012-13 season, losing 5-0 on aggregate to Italian giants Juventus.
The group stage awaits Rodgers and Celtic – the target will be to improve on last season as the champions mix it with Europe’s elite.
Rangers returned to the Champions League last season after more than a decade but it was a campaign to forget as they finished with the worst-ever group stage record.
Zero points and some heavy defeats, including 7-1 at home to Liverpool, did not make for good viewing but they have the chance to return to the main stage and try to make more of an impact.
A 3-2 aggregate win over Servette in the third qualifying round set up a play-off against PSV Eindhoven for the second successive season. Rangers stunned the Dutch side a year ago, knocking them out 3-2 on aggregate.
It was only two seasons ago that the Ibrox side reached the Europa League final, a campaign Michael Beale was part of as a first-team coach before leaving with Steven Gerrard for Aston Villa.
In came Giovanni van Bronckhorst and the team saw off the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Red Star Belgrade and RB Leipzig before losing in the final to Eintracht Frankfurt.
Group-stage football in the Europa League is guaranteed but it is the Champions League that the fans and players will want to taste again.
The current squad has a fresh feel about it with nine summer signings – but players from that group who got to the final in Seville in 2022 are still in the group – and that experience could prove vital as Rangers bid to impress on the continent once again.
Aberdeen are guaranteed group-stage action in the Conference League, but will play in the Europa League if they can win their playoff.
The Dons will face Swedish side BK Hacken, a side they knocked out of European competition in 2021.
It ended in a 5-3 win for the Scottish club following a sensational 5-1 victory in the first leg.
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Barry Robson’s side will visit Gothenburg, the city in which they beat Real Madrid in the 1983 European Cup Winners’ Cup final, for the first leg next Thursday.
Aberdeen last played in a group stage in the 2008 UEFA Cup. Fans have at least eight European occasions to look forward to this season, which will also be a huge financial boost for the Pittodrie club.
Hearts produced a thrilling comeback against Rosenborg to keep their hopes of another season of European football alive.
Cammy Devlin scored a stoppage-time winner as they came from two goals behind on aggregate to eliminate Rosenborg 4-3 in a dramatic Europa Conference League third-qualifying round tie.
They now face a play-off with Greek side PAOK as they look to reach the Europa Conference League group stages for the second year running.
Hearts dropped into the competition last season and earned around £5m from matches against Istanbul Basaksehir, Fiorentina and RFS.
The Jambos have reached Champions League qualifying once, in 2006, where they beat Bosnian champions Siroki Brijeg before losing to AEK Athens in the third qualifying round.
Hibs finished fifth in the Scottish Premiership to make a return to European football after missing out last year and it has been quite a start.
After easing past Inter Club D’Escaldes 6-1 in the second qualifying round of the Europa Conference League, they beat Swiss outfit Luzern to set up a glamour tie with Aston Villa in the play-offs.
It will mark a return for former Easter Road hero John McGinn, who was part of their 2016 Scottish Cup-winning team, as Villa’s captain.
That Scottish Cup win saw Hibs enter the Europa League qualifiers the following season where they lost to Danish club Brondby on penalties.
They then returned to the competition in 2018 and reached the third qualifying round where they lost to Swedish outfit Molde.
After finishing third in the Premiership in 2020 they entered the newly established Conference League, beating Andorrans Santa Coloma before losing to Croatian side Rijeka.
‘Tremendous’ for the game
SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster told Sky Sports he is excited about what might lie ahead for Scottish clubs in Europe this season.
“Like every fan of Scottish football, I’m absolutely delighted that SPFL clubs are doing so well in Europe this year.
“It’s early stages in some of the competitions, but the prospect of having so many Scottish clubs progressing is tremendous news for our game, both in terms of its heightened profile across Europe and in the significant commercial revenue which is generated by UEFA competitions.
“Performances like those we have seen in the past week are a testament to all the hard work that the clubs have put in over recent years, and we look forward to further success in the season ahead.”
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