Lewis Ferguson knows the odds are always stacked against Aberdeen in the Europa League, but the Dons midfielder hopes the introduction of a third UEFA competition could finally deliver group stage football to Pittodrie.
Defeat to Sporting Lisbon in Portugal on Thursday night saw the Dons fail to progress past the qualifiers for the seventh year running.
Even the play-off round has proved to be a step too far for Derek McInnes’ team and Ferguson admits the set-up of the competition – where some of Europe’s big guns enter at the third qualifying round – always made it a mission impossible for the Reds.
But the creation of the Europa Conference League offers the tantalising prospect of group-stage action for the continent’s lesser lights.
The teams finishing third and fourth in this year’s Premiership will enter the new tournament and Ferguson hopes the Dons can at last find a safe route through.
He said: “That is something that would help us.
“It’s difficult for us to go beat the likes of Sporting Lisbon, who will be looking to go on and win this tournament.
“Even if we did, we’d have another tie before we even reach the group stages so it’s always tough.
“When we come into the competition we know we’re going to have to win four qualifiers to make the group stages.
“We’re always pretty comfortable during the first two but when you get to that third qualifying round it’s usually a top side we come up against. And it was a top side we faced last night, who were very good.
“We managed to put in a winning performance but it wasn’t quite a winning performance.
“But the likelihood had we pulled it off was that we’d have come up against another top side in the play-offs and it’s just a massive ask for this team to put out the likes of Sporting Lisbon then another top team.
“So a competition like the one coming in next year would be decent and I think it would be good for us to go experience that group stage feeling in European football.”
Sporting were hit by a Covid outbreak that saw eight players and boss Ruben Amorim forced into quarantine.
But Ferguson bristled at the suggestion it was a second strike side that dumped his side out of the competition, thanks to youngster Tiago Tomas’ early winner.
“I’ve seen a lot of things saying Sporting weren’t at full strength but they were,” he said.
“The only player who we had looked at who didn’t play was their number nine, so they were really strong.
“But the experience of playing a team like that was good and there’s loads we can take from it. They are full of top European footballers and internationals, so it was great to test yourself against guys of that level.
“We’re disappointed not to have come away with a result. We caused a good team a lot of problems and acquitted ourselves well. It’s just a shame we lost a goal early on.”
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