So, it’s nearly done, it’s nearly over. Two out of three ain’t bad as a certain American musician, singer, songwriter, record producer, and actor once sang. Irish league champions Linfield have been knocked out without a goal being conceded. The 2016 Tippeligaen champions, Rosenborg who won their title by 15 points and started their domestic season on the 1st of April and sit five points clear at the top of the Eliteserien, cheeky league name change there, have also been knocked out without Celtic conceding a goal. Bendtner and his mates are now Europa League bound for the play off round.
Thoughts now turn to Nyon, a Swiss municipality about 15 miles outside of Geneva. This morning, Celtic will find out which side will represent the third and final hurdle as the club attempt to gain entry to the Champions League proper for the second time under Brendan Rodgers. Some clichés become so ridiculously overused that they almost take on a life of their own. ‘There are no easy games in Europe anymore” is one of these, although at this stage of the competition, it’s probably fair comment. Who lies in wait for Celtic today though and what do we know about them?
As a seeded side having come through the Champions Route, Celtic will avoid Olympiakos, FC Copenhagen, Apoel Nicosia and Maribor. Some familiar teams could be making their way back to Glasgow though with the club having to play one of five teams to make it to the group stages. Qarabağ, the Azerbaijan champions, Kazakh double winners, FK Astana, Croatian double winners, Rijeka, Israeli Premier League champions, Hapoel Be’er Sheva or Czech league champions Slavia Prague are all possibilities with the clubs named in order from highest to lowest as regards their respective UEFA coefficient points.
Let’s start with Qarabağ. They’ll kick off their Topaz Premyer Liqası campaign next week away to Neftçi. It’s an eight team league with each team playing everyone four times in a 28 game season. Having only lost four games last season on the way to winning the title by ten points, the club went into the second qualifying round of the Champions League where they were drawn against FC Samtredia of Georgia. They progressed 6-0 on aggregate, winning 5-0 at home, a result which was their biggest ever win in a UEFA competition. Up next were FC Sheriff Tiraspol, the Moldovan Divizia Națională champions. They’ve dominated domestically, winning 14 out of the last 16 titles but the team from Azerbaijan were too much for them. Qarabağ drew 0-0 at home but won 2-1 in Moldova to ensure that they would be in one of those glass bowls today for the draw. The side who are nicknamed The Horsemen have never been to the group stages of the Champions League. Last season, they dropped into the Europa League group stages after being knocked out in Champions League third qualifying round. They came third in a group containing Fiorentina, PAOK and Slovan Liberec. The Italians would top the group with the Greeks finishing second. They drew 2-2 with the Czech side in their first game at home before being thumped 5-1 in Florence. Progression looked on after the double header with the Greeks when they won 2-0 at home and 1-0 in Thessaloniki. That would be as far as they went though as they were humbled 3-0 away to the Czechs before Fiorentina beat them at home, 2-1 in their final game.
Their main threat is Dino Ndlovu, a South African striker. He’s been on loan at Bloemfontein Celtic previously where he never scored and has also turned out for a side curiously called Motherwell FC in his youth career. No, not that team, apparently they’re a side in South Africa! They like to pack the defence and midfield with players getting forward to support Ndlovu when they’re attacking. They tend not to be a side that will have a lot of shots in a game due to the way that they line up formation wise but they do have a high conversion rate. They can be quite physical and manage to rack up their fair share of bookings. No one doubts that they’re a useful side, but if they’re paired with Celtic this morning, touch wood, Celtic should be okay.
We know all about Astana, certainly Moussa Dembélé will have fond memories of them. Domestic title winners on three occasions, they’ve been to the group stages previously where they negotiated three qualifying rounds before being drawn in a group with Atlético Madrid, Benfica and Galatasaray. They picked up four points from their six games with draws against all three sides at home and also picked up a point in Turkey when Craig Thomson was the referee for the 1-1 draw.
They made it into the Europa League group stages last season and came up against Apoel Nicosia, Young Boys and Olympiakos, so they too could face familiar opposition in the play off round. They finished bottom of their group last season with a win and two draws from the six games. They beat Apoel and drew with Young Boys and Olympiakos at home but lost all of their away games. Looks like they don’t travel very well, right? They were not expected to make it to this round but caused one of the biggest shocks last season when they knocked out BATE Borisov on their way to those EL group stages. They did go down 1-0 against Legia Warsaw away in the last round, maybe they were put off by the tifo? A 3-1 home win though was enough to ensure progress to the round that they find themselves in today. They’ve lost their best player, Nemanja Maksimović, who joined Valencia last month. They’re a side who like to play 4-2-3-1 and don’t get tested too much domestically. The people who run the club are fairly relaxed about European football seeing positive results as a bonus so to that end, the coach and players aren’t under too much pressure going into games. In Europe, they tend to play defensively and will often park the bus putting the onus on the opposition to try and break them down.
Rijeka are known to Scottish clubs with Aberdeen having knocked them out of Europe in the recent past. Entering at the second qualifying round stage, they promptly took care of The New Saints, winning 2-0 at home and 5-1 in Wales. They then went to Salzburg and managed a very creditable 1-1 draw, scoring that vital away goal. Not many people gave them a chance of seeing off the Austrians but a 0-0 draw at home saw them over the line. There is no doubting it would be a tough tie but it would be an awesome trip for the away support. Their Kantrida Stadium, sits on the shore of the Adriatic Sea and is one of the most picturesque football settings in Europe. Stick it into Google. Other search engines are available! They like to play attacking football, calling it the “Rijeka Way”. Sounds familiar. Their domestic home form is good and they usually play a fairly straightforward 4-4-2. They are sitting top of their league with maximum points after three games and so shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Hapoel Be’er Sheva are the team that will likely send the most shudders through the support with the manager being incredibly honest about how nervous he was in Israel last season. That achievement a year ago shouldn’t be taken lightly. When they dropped into the Europa League, they saw off Inter Milan as well as Southampton. After a 2-0 home win in the last round against highly fancied Ludogorets, a lot of people still didn’t give them a chance of progressing. Those predictions looked like being borne out when they trailed 3-0 but a goal after an hour saw them through on away goals. A late sending off for striker Ohana means he’ll be suspended for their next game. They still play the 4-3-3 formation that has served them well and might well be the one team that the manager will hope to avoid.
Slavia Prague have the lowest coefficient of the sides that Celtic could meet. The 0-0 friendly last month was a useful run out for all of the players with the exception of Dedryck Boyata. They weren’t expected to reach this stage after being drawn against BATE Borisov, a side who have featured regularly in the group stages. A 1-0 home win was seen as a good result with not many expecting much when they travelled to the Borisov Arena, which is also the home of the national side. They kept possession well and thanks to a goal from the captain on the stroke of half time, managed to escape with a 2-1 defeat sending them through on away goals. They employ a 4-5-1 formation and haven’t won away in Europe in seventeen games, losing nine of those. They’re not an overly physical side and can be got at as Celtic showed in the recent friendly game. The aforementioned captain Skoda is probably their best player although they do have Danny, the Portuguese attacking midfielder in their side. He’s perhaps not the player he was after suffering an ACL injury last year but he can pick a pass. Forget about their coefficient points, they’ll be a test.
Despite all of that though, none of the sides mentioned will want to draw Celtic. Sure, this will be nerve-wracking. It should be worse for whoever lies in wait though.