Eight Games? Yerevan a Laugh!

I’m struggling to remember when I’ve been more entertained by a World Cup than the one that is still in progress right now. By in large, the games have been good to watch, we’ve had plenty of goals, we’ve had shocks, we’ve had skill, we’ve had moments to savour.

And, sadly, we’ve had to put up with the English belief. Never was that more evident than in the shootout against Colombia where they went from “not again” to “it’s coming home” in the space of about four spot kicks.

If England do go on to lift the trophy for the first time – it’s a different shape than the one they won in 1966 remember – then perhaps today’s match is merely the first step on a long road to Celtic becoming European champions next May.

Yeah, I know, the world doesn’t actually work like that. But imagine if it did…

To do that, we’d have to navigate through four full rounds of qualifying, eight games in total, then play six group matches, two legs in the last sixteen, quarter finals, and semi finals, before rounding it all of with victory in the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid on June 1st.

That’s a massive twenty one games to win the same trophy that the Lisbon Lions won in just nine games. Seriously, the Lions played as many games getting to the final in Lisbon as Brendan Rodgers’ side will need to play just to reach the group stages.

We kick off tonight at 5pm Celtic Park time in Armenia, a country we have never previously visited before. So tick that one off the list. Actually, this means of the 55 members on UEFA, Celtic only have 14 more to visit. Those would be Andorra, Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Kosovo, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, and San Marino. I’m not sure Scotland counts here, but I suppose it is possible we could meet another Scottish team in Europe one day.

But for now it’s the Armenian champions, FC Alashkert. This is the second team with that name, as the first team were founded in 1990 but were dissolved a decade later. The current team to take the name appeared in 2011 and first played in the Armenian league in 2012/13. They won the second tier in Armenia in their debut season, consolidated their place in the top tier in 2013/14, before qualifying for Europe in 2014/15.

Where they met St Johnstone. Yep, their very first European outing took them to face a club we know pretty well. They even beat then on away goals, winning 1-0 at home but losing 2-1 at McDiarmid Park. Kairat Almaty of Kazakhstan knocked them out in the following round, fresh from dumping Aberdeen out of qualifying themselves.

This will be their third entry into the Champions League qualifying as after they beat St Johnstone they’ve also managed to beat Santa Coloma of Andorra in each of the last two seasons. They then lost to Dinamo Tbilisi of Georgia and BATE Borisov of Belarus in the second qualifying round.

It’s worth noting that Alashkert have decided not to play the home leg at their own home, but instead have taken it to the Armenian national stadium. Or to give it the proper name, the Republican Stadium.

Not sure who’ll be more at home there to be honest.

Their current squad is mostly made up of Armenians, but as you’d almost expect at this point they have a token Brazilian. Jefferson Reis De Jesus. Apparently he’s a bit… well… he gave a ball boy a kicking. So imagine facing this guy in the hot temperatures. If Scott Brown is fit I’m half expecting he’ll wind him up.

They actually have three Brazilians, two of which have been out on loan but have now returned, so who knows who we’ll face. Indeed, with Alashkert making new signings recently, they’re a bit of an unknown even compared to the Alashkert of last season – and who can tell me anything about the Alashkert of last season?

We can’t take this tie lightly. Of the six games they’ve played at home in Europe so far, they’ve won four, drawn one and only lost to BATE Borisov last season. They scored in every single one of those six games too. They’ll be keen to progress, and they’ll know this is as good a time as any to play Celtic.

We still have Dedryck Boyata out at the World Cup, Mikael Lustig was only just knocked out with the rest of Sweden on Saturday, Cristian Gamboa was there with Costa Rica and Tom Rogic was there with Australia… that’s three defenders, two of which play right back, and a key match winner all still on holiday. Throw in Scott Brown who was taken off with a possible injury in the weekend friendly against Shamrock Rovers and you might start to be concerned.

Or you could note that we won 7-0 in that game and that both Odsonne Edouard and Moussa Dembele are looking in decent form already and think maybe if we just score enough it won’t matter if half our defence is missing. Just a thought.

Other than Edouard and Scott Bain making their loan switches permanent, we haven’t freshened up the squad that won the double treble last season. No doubt Brendan Rodgers will so far be looking to get the best out of players that never quite managed it last season. Stuart Armstrong has left the club for a decent fee, and joins Erik Sviatchenko, Nadir Ciftci and a few of the youth squad on the way out of Celtic.

I’m sure we’ll see more movement before the end of the transfer window, but that’s a long way away from now, and hopefully by the time that comes we’ve successfully navigated eight games and reached the Champions League group stages for a third successive season.

The first step on that particular road starts today in Yerevan.

Krys (Twitter @krys1888)

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