THE Europa League first round qualifying ties begin next week and that sentence alone will strike fear into the hearts of many Scottish football fans.

Both Rangers and St Johnstone got embarrassingly punted out at this stage of the competition last year to much consternation and Rangers again, plus Hibs, will hope to avoid a similar fate against Shkupi and NSI Runavik respectively.

It’s unlikely many in this country will have heard of either team but with Trakai and Progres Niederkorn still fresh in the memory, I am sure nothing will be taken for granted by either team.

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Both Rangers and Hibs play their first legs at home and will want to put the tie to bed before travelling away from home the following week.

Rangers in particular will be keen to take a good lead with them to the searing heat and humidity that is Macedonia in July because that second leg will not be easy.

The big advantage for a lot teams like these is they are half-way through their season already and will be cherry-ripe in terms of fitness and sharpness.

Having played in these rounds myself, I know how difficult it can be to play against sides who you know you have more quality than but at the same time, you also know you are desperately undercooked in terms of match sharpness.

I can vividly remember losing to a poor Lithuanian team called Vetra Vilnius when I played for Hibs in this very round back in 2004.

We had only been back in training for 3 weeks under our new gaffer, Tony Mowbray, and when we went into the tie, we had played only a couple of bounce games.

Yes we had done lots of fitness work and running but we just weren’t sharp or fit enough to get through over the two legs.

The lack of sharpness was particularly telling in both boxes and we embarrassingly got knocked out.

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Shkupi haven’t started their season yet though so that eliminates that fitness edge for them and is good news for Rangers. NSI Runavik are mid-season but Hibs should still have more than enough quality to beat a team sitting fifth place in the Faroese League.

For Rangers, it’s imperative to continue the feel-good factor that has intoxicated the fans around Ibrox with the appointment of Steven Gerrard. A sell-out crowd will be expecting a strong performance and comfortable win in Stevie G’s first competitive game.

It was very interesting to hear Gerrard comment on Rangers fitness of lack off last season so they are sure to have done plenty conditioning work at the newly-named Hummel Training Centre. It will also give the punters a look at the new faces that have been brought into the club and they will be bursting to make a good first impression not only on the fans but to the manager too.

It could be a tricky tie though. The last game Shkupi played at the tail end of last season was a 4-1 victory over Vardar who not only knocked Fenerbache out the Europa League last season but actually got to the group stages. So they might be a tougher nut to crack than many anticipate but I would still fully expect Rangers to beat them comfortably, particularly in front of a packed out Ibrox.

Hibs also will be looking to get their season off to a flying start with a win. The Hibs fans have been on a little bit of a downer in recent weeks with the departure of the terrific Dylan McGeouch and impending loss of John McGinn but Florian Kamberi was a massive signing.

As will Stevie Mallan be, in my opinion, so the Hibees will roll up in their usual big numbers to Easter Road on Thursday night and fully expect a comfortable victory.

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This looks an easier tie on paper than Rangers have and again I will be stunned and disappointed if Hibs don’t take care of NSI over the two legs and go through.

With co-efficient points and the pride of our country at stake let’s hope that both teams can get through to join Aberdeen in the next qualifying round.

The lingering embarrassment of Trakai and Progres last season simply cannot be repeated in the coming weeks or else the mounting feel good factor that is currently surrounding the whole of Scottish football will take a big dunt.