After a record breaking season, thoughts have already turned to the challenge of winning a seventh title in a row, as well as trying to reach the group stages of the Champions league once again. Some players have already left, whilst others will likely follow. Those that depart the club will leave with the best wishes of the fans but it’s the players coming in that will really get the juices flowing. Annoyingly, but only if you’re a journalist within the SMSM, the club’s policy of only announcing players when and where they want to must be frustrating, given that they’re all trying to fill column inches. Chances are that players have already been signed and the club are just waiting on the gaffer coming back from a well deserved holiday to announce them.
With the manager reportedly in the market for four players, a central defender, a midfielder, a winger and a striker, it’s unlikely that he left without telling Peter Lawwell exactly who he wanted to bring in. He’s been pretty candid also with how he sees progression in Europe with his wish of seeing the club still be involved in at least one of the two competitions during the second half of the season. With the club starting in the second qualifying round of the Champions League as one of 34 teams, progress to the group stages would be a feat in itself but clearly the manager has loftier ambitions.
The draw takes place on June 19th, on the same day that the clubs entering Europe’s premier club competition at the first qualifying stage will find out who their opponents will be. Celtic will play the first leg on either July 11th or 12th before the draw is made for the third qualifying round on July 14th. The second leg will then be on the 18th or 19th of July and you’d have to be pretty pessimistic to think that the club won’t safely negotiate the first tie.
Of the 17 seeded teams, Celtic have the highest coefficient. It shouldn’t affect the side too much that the 34 clubs are split into a group of ten and two groups of twelve. There are no hard and fast rules about how the teams are divided but it seems loosely based on geography. The strongest unseeded team are the Slovakian champions MŠK Žilina, the side that FC Basel knocked out the round before they beat us in the Champions League in the season that we went to Seville. A trip to Ireland to play Dundalk or to Wales to take on The New Saints might be one of the preferred options in terms of travel but regardless of who comes out of the glass bowl in Nyon in eight days, the club should be well placed to advance. Touch wood!
No rest for the wicked as the dates for the next round come quickly. The first leg will be on the 25th or 26th of July with the second leg being played on the 1st or 2nd of August. Olympiakos enter the fray in the third qualifying round and in doing so, will knock Celtic off the top spot of seeded sides with the Hoops dropping to second. Fresh with new manager Besnik Hasi, who was at old foes Legia Warsaw last season and a side that can boast the likes of Óscar Cardozo, Marko Marin and Esteban Cambiasso in their first team, they’ll fancy reaching the group stages so it’s perhaps as well that we’ll dodge them at this point. The teams in this round are split again, this time into two groups of ten. Malmö, Astana and Hapoel Be’er Sheva are all possible opponents at this stage, showing just how tough it will be to reach the top table, and that’s before even reaching the 4th qualifying round for those sides that are in the competition via the champions route. The draw for the last round before the group stages takes place just two days after the second leg of the third round finishing so all being well, the excitement should be palpable.
It doesn’t get any easier though.
Assuming that the all of the ten clubs from the champions route with the highest coefficient points reach the play-off stage, there is a strong chance that Celtic will play a team that we’re reasonably familiar with. Qarabağ, NK Maribor and the aforementioned Legia Warsaw are all possible opponents. Chuck in BATE Borisov who have just clinched their eleventh league title in a row and Apoel Nicosia who got through a group in the last few years containing Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk and Zenit St Petersburg before knocking out Lyon in the last 16 to reach the quarter finals, then the scale of the task becomes clear. If all goes to plan coefficient wise, eight of the other nine teams at this stage will have entered the competition at the same stage as Celtic with just Olympiakos being spared the ignominy of a slightly earlier start. Compare and contrast that with the ten teams who look like contesting the play-off for non champions. Of the five seeded sides, Sevilla, Napoli and Liverpool all come straight in at this stage with Ajax and the final hosts, Dinamo Kiev both joining in the previous round. Even the non seeded sides see two teams making their first appearances of the competition. No one would begrudge Sporting Lisbon or Hoffenheim their chance to reach the top table but they sure have it a hell of a lot easier than Celtic do. It’s worth mentioning the other three teams who are non seeds for the play-off round. Czech league runners up Viktoria Plzeň are in there as are CSKA Moscow and Club Brugge. As it stands at the moment, if Celtic do make it through, we’ll go into Pot 4. However, if three out of Ajax, Dynamo Kiev, Liverpool, Napoli, Olympiakos or Sevilla are knocked out during qualifying, Celtic will get the bump to make it into Pot 3. We can wish, hope and dream, right?
The four pots for the group stages will look a little different in the upcoming season than they have done in previous years. Obviously some clubs have gone straight into the league proper and we’re assuming that the qualifiers with the highest coefficient points will also make it but it’s interesting reading nonetheless. The long and short of it is that in the 2015/16 season, UEFA decided that Pot 1 for the group stage draw for the 2017/18 season would be filled by the holders and the champions of the top seven national associations as per the club coefficient rankings at the end of season 2015/16. As we all know, Real Madrid won both the Champions League as well as their own domestic league in the season that’s just ended, meaning that it freed up a spot in Pot 1 for the eighth seeded nation, the Ukraine, meaning that the champions, Shakhtar Donetsk go into the top pot.
So, Pot 1 will contain Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Juventus, Benfica, Monaco, Spartak Moscow and Shakhtar Donetsk. Of the 32 teams expected to make the group stage, only RB Leipzig, a Pot 4 team have less coefficient points than Spartak Moscow.
As you’d expect, Pot 2 looks rather tasty and also increasingly more difficult for a club like Celtic to make it to the last 16. Seven of the eight teams go straight into the second pot with only Sevilla, if they make it, having come through the qualifiers. Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Borussia Dortmund, Sevilla, Manchester City, Porto and Manchester United make up the numbers in the second pot. You’d be forgiven for arguing that it’s a stronger section than Pot 1.
The potential opponents in Pot 3 are Napoli, Spurs, Basel, Dinamo Kiev, Ajax, Olympiakos, Anderlecht and Liverpool. As it stands currently in Pot 4, one again assuming that all the teams win that are expected to, we’ll be joined by Roma, Besiktas, FC Salzburg, FC København, to give them their passport name, Ludogorets Razgrad, Feyenoord as well as Champions League debutants, RB Leipzig. Despite the controlling ownership issues with Salzburg, Leipzig look like being cleared to play.
So, we know as much as we can know at the moment. Clearly football isn’t played on paper so some of the teams mentioned may be knocked out with others replacing them. As is stands at the moment though, if the club can safely negotiate the three qualifying rounds that they need to, then Zadok the Priest will be heard at Celtic Park once again for at least three home games in the group stages and hopefully beyond.
Keeping everything crossed that it happens and looking at the list as it stands, who would you choose as your preferred opponents from the groups for games between September 12th and December 6th?