Last season saw us successfully traverse the difficult road to the Champions League group stages for the first time since 2013/14 under Neil Lennon, but it was far from plain sailing as Brendan Rodgers got to grips with his new challenge as Celtic manager.
Right off the bat there was a first leg defeat away to Lincoln Red Imps. Partly because their artificial pitch was awful, partly because Moussa Dembele had a perfectly good goal chalked off, and partly because Efe Ambrose made a mistake, it was still a week of difficult headlines.
Oddly, headlines the other teams tend to avoid when they get knocked out of Europe by teams whose ranking is in the 400s as both Progres and Trakai were this season.
Incidentally, Lincoln Red Imps were 407th at the time so we were rightly criticised. But then they’d also won their first round tie against Flora Tallinn, so it’s not like it was their first ever win. And ultimately Celtic turned the tie around in the second leg to progress anyway. Still, as I said earlier in yesterday’s blog, that’s at least 0.5 missing from the coefficient total because we lost that first leg. See what I mean about these dodgy results being an issue?
If the Red Imps caught us cold, then Astana gave us a run for our money in the next round. They were by far the better team over in Kazakhstan, but we somehow managed to get away with a strong late finish and a 1-1 draw. We controlled the home leg for the most part, but conceded late on and looked to be heading for extra time before the late Dembele penalty sent us through to the playoff round.
And then there was Hapoel Be’er Sheva. Thank goodness for the thumping home win, because we needed every single bit of it right down the Scott Brown’s late fifth goal. I’ve far more grey hair since I became a parent, but there’s definitely part of my scalp reserved for the night of that second leg.
While we’re certainly in a stronger and better position than this time last season, I’m still expecting a tricky time of it in Champions League qualifying once again. With Dedryck Boyata out for the next few months, we’re going into this first tie with just Jozo Simunovic and Erik Sviatchenko as our centre halves. Mikael Lustig can fill in there in a pinch, but with Kolo Toure, Efe Ambrose and even Eoghan O’Connell all gone from our squad now we’re just a little light at the back. Who knows, maybe Kristoffer Ajer will surprise us after his loan spell with Kilmarnock.
On better news, Scott Brown is fit despite a bit of doubt after the pre-season friendlies, while new signing Olivier Ntcham won’t play this first leg but is expected to play against Lyon in Saturday’s friendly. He’ll be available for the second leg should we need him. Kieran Tierney will be in the squad too, despite STV’s bizarre mischief questioning why he wasn’t on the UEFA A-list squad. Why would you possibly do that when he can feature on the less restrictive B-list because he’s home grown?
Linfield are our first opponents of hopefully three this season, and while they’re clearly far higher ranked than Red Imps were at 312th, they’re no Astana or Be’er Sheva who both make the top 150 in Europe.
Indeed, Linfield are one of the most experienced teams in the Champions League in terms of number of times they’ve entered it. There used to be a joke that the two biggest failures in European football were Rangers and Linfield as they’d been in the European Cup so often without winning it.
Actually, the joke was inaccurate as that particular unwanted accolade goes to Dynamo Kyiv who have played in it 34 times and never won it. Rangers only managed 30, while this will be Linfield’s 28th attempt.
In case you’re wondering, it’s our 32nd. But then we won it at our first attempt so we’ve never featured in that particular statistic. Interestingly, our second attempt was also Dynamo Kyiv’s first, when they surprisingly knocked out the reigning champions in the first round. Not one of Jock Stein’s finest moments as Celtic manager.
In their entire history, Linfield have only played three rounds of European competition in the same season once. That came in 1966/67, when they reach the quarter final of the European Cup before losing out to CSKA Red Flag. Indeed, Linfield have only progressed in a European Cup tie six times, and the sixth of those was their 1-0 aggregate win over La Fiorita to set up this meeting with Celtic. They’ve won eleven ties in all, losing the other forty four.
Their current side is managed by David Healy, former striker of a number of clubs including our former rivals Rangers. He’s probably more famous for his international duty though, given he is their top scorer in history and scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over England in 2005 as well as a hat-trick against Spain in a 3-2 win in 2006.
The Linfield squad include veteran goalkeeper Roy Carroll, who signed for one season last year but then signed an extension to play on this year. Jordan Stewart is new in the door, but he scored the vital goal that took them past La Fiorita late on in the first leg at Windsor Park. He probably saved Aaron Burns’ blushes since he’d earlier missed a penalty.
Jamie Mulgrew is another name of note, if only because he’s been at Linfield forever and scored an early opener against Hearts in a friendly last week. That’s a friendly they went on to lose 4-1 mind you. Still, that’s an improvement on their last friendly match with a team from Scotland, given the 7-0 hiding they took from Mark Warburton’s side in September last year just before Warburton’s side were thumped 5-1 at Celtic Park – Moussa Dembele hat trick and all.
But that wasn’t Linfield’s only defeat to Scottish opposition last season. As one of the teams invited to take part in our lower league competition, Linfield lost 2-0 to Queen of the South in the fourth round of the Challenge Cup. That’s the round they came in at, and to put that in some perspective Celtic’s Under-20 teams were knocked out in the round before by a Livingston team that would go on and win League One.
Given the connection that Linfield have with the other side of our city, I was always going to hope that Celtic would win home and away in this tie. But given we have a dwindling coefficient to think about as well, we have a number of good reasons to do that.
But this game won’t be easy. In what is probably the saddest and most pathetic week of the year in Belfast, this tie goes ahead at 5pm on Friday night rather than 7.45pm on Tuesday. Further, it goes ahead with no visiting fans, as Celtic refused to take up any tickets for the trip to Windsor Park.
Was it down to safety concerns? Perhaps, but moving the tie to Friday night should have been sufficient to deal with that. By not taking tickets and moving this fixture to the Friday, we have completely given into the lowest denominator. Mind you, many would suspect that those in power at Celtic just don’t want yet another fine, because you know the Celtic fans wouldn’t keep quiet about Belfast’s darker side.
And rightly so too. When you watch Irish tricolours, Celtic effigies and shameful racist banners directed at Scott Sinclair turning up on these huge bonfires, you’d think we had every right to answer back. I suspect we probably will in the home leg next week anyway.
Those at Celtic who took this decision would do well to look about for the quote “football is nothing without fans” – I’m pretty sure it’s plastered all over Celtic Park after all.
But hopefully by then the Celtic players have had their say on the pitch. Nothing would please me more than to put this lot to the sword, and finish the tie in Belfast long before they come over to Glasgow next week.
Another 9-0 victory on Irish soil perhaps? One that actually means something this time, unlike last weekend’s warm up against Shamrock Rovers!
Krys (Twitter @krys1888)