Tim or Cluj

Neil Lennon checks out the Cluj stadiumIt doesn’t seem that long ago that we all saw the name Cluj turn up in the Champions League and had a good laugh at what that name could be in an English speaking country. Indeed, it became a feature of the Lostbhoys podcast at one point, just in case anyone took offence at the original name for the feature.

You know what it was.

But actually it’s been eleven years since Cluj first featured in the Champions League, beating Roma and drawing with Chelsea. They were again in the group stages two years later, again taking points off Roma and beating Basel. Two years on from that, they beat Manchester United, drew with Galatasaray and beat Braga home and away.

But since those days, Cluj have gone through something of a torrid time. In 2014/15 they suffered insolvency, were almost relegated out of the top flight in Romania as a result of a points deduction which they appealed and won. It wasn’t until the end of the 2016/17 season that they came out of insolvency and as such were able to return to European competition only last season. There they lost in the second qualifying round of the Champions League to Malmo, beat Alashkert in the Europa League qualifying who themselves were there because we’d beaten them in the Champions League, but ultimately Cluj lost out in the playoff round to Dudelange.

The man in charge during this recent return to glory is none other than Dan Petrescu. Some might remember him from his playing days in England for teams like Sheffield Wednesday, Chelsea and Southampton, others may remember him scoring the winning goal against England in the France 98 World Cup.

Or you might remember that Petrescu was the manager of Unirea Urziceni who thumped Rangers 4-1 at Ibrox ten years ago in the Champions League.

Petrescu resigned two months after that victory and has since managed a number of clubs in Russia, Qatar, China and of course Romania. It should be noted that this is actually Petrescu’s second time in charge of Cluj. He won the league in this first spell, then left to go to China for a year, before returning to the club in March of this year to help them retain the title.

Cluj have come this far in Champions League qualifying by winning a couple of tricky ties. Their first round victory over Astana is one we know ourselves having been to Kazakhstan in recent seasons. In their case, they overturned a 1-0 away leg defeat by winning 3-1 at home courtesy of a Billel Omrani hat trick. The second round then took them to Israel where their 1-0 home win, again thanks to Omrani, was followed up by a 2-2 away leg with Emmanuel Culio and Mario Rondon getting the goals this time.

Tonight’s trip to Romania takes us to Transylvania, so hopefully it’s Celtic who draw first blood and don’t suck. I’m sure you can probably come up with your own vampire jokes, personally I’m hoping we need the Count from Sesame Street to keep track of the away goals.

In theory, we’re slightly stronger for this tie than we were for the last round thanks to the addition of Hatem Abd Elhamed at right back, but that’s assuming he can recover from his knock at the weekend. It’s also assuming we haven’t sold anyone else, with rumours of Kieran Tierney to Arsenal still persistent but also joined by Jozo Simunovic to Lille and Kristoffer Ajer to Leicester City.

What is it about our defence that people apparently want to snap up our players from there specifically?

Tierney is still injured, or is that “injured”? Maybe both. Simunovic is available following league suspension, as is Christopher Jullien, and hopefully that will see us play a decent back line that can keep Scott Bain’s goal quiet. At the other end, Ryan Christie is free scoring at the moment, Mikey Johnston has started the season well too, whilst Callum McGregor and Leigh Griffiths are both available and well known for scoring in Europe for Celtic. Odsonne Edouard is also available, so it will be interesting to see if Neil Lennon opts to play one or both of them – you would suspect in the away leg it will be just one, particularly when you have midfielders who can chip in with goals as well.

The home leg coming next week may well suit us given we’ve scored twelve goals in our recent two matches there, but the job tonight will be to get a decent result to bring home. We’ve won all four games in Europe so far this season, but to make that five will be a tough ask against a team probably far better than any we’ve played so far.

Win this tie, and we’re in the group stages of a European competition with Slavia Prague to overcome to make that group stage the Champions League. Lose this tie and we’ll have to face either AIK Stockholm or Sheriff Tiraspol for a place in the Europa League group stages.

Krys (Twitter @krys1888)

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