Celtic travel to Portugal looking to take an advantage back to Glasgow in their crucial Champions League tie
AFTER a fallow season of non-achievement by Scottish clubs in Europe in 2009-10, Motherwell have at least got the ball rolling for this new semester by negotiating a tricky opening Europa League qualifier against Iceland's Briedablik, while on Wednesday it is Celtic's turn to take Scotland's first step in the Champions League.
Rangers go straight into the group stages, but Celtic have to qualify for that most lucrative of arenas, Sporting Braga of Portugal being their first barrier on Wednesday with the return leg - Celtic fans should note it will not be televised - the following week.
Braga were seeded and reckoned to be the easiest side Celtic could meet in this third qualifying round match, but new Parkhead manager Neil Lennon is not in the slightest downplaying the danger presented by the Portuguese side.
"We are well aware of them and have had people watching them recently," said Lennon. "They are a very technical attacking team, quick and sharp, particularly at home. We need to go there and make sure we have got something to hold on to.
"They finished second in the Portuguese league so we won't be underestimating them. They will be a quality side."
This may be Braga's first appearance in the Champions League, but they are a club with experience in Europe, having played the last six seasons in the UEFA Cup and Europa League.
"They have had good results in Europe," noted Lennon, "and they do score a lot of goals, not just at home but away, so we have to be very cautious and make sure we set up right."
The stakes are massive for both sides, but especially for Celtic who rely on income from European football to have any hope of making a serious profit.
"There are huge incentives and not just for football reasons," said Lennon. "It has come on us very quickly but hopefully we will be ready."
Victory over Braga would guarantee at least participation in the group stages of the Europa League, but that would be very much second best for Lennon, whose love of the Champions League has been well documented.
"We want to qualify," he said. "The players don't want to be sitting in the house in September watching the Champions League and wishing they'd been there."
A summer of upheaval at both clubs has seen the Celts gain its new management team of Lennon, Johann Mjallby and Alan Thompson, precipitating a raft of player departures and arrivals. Braga's sporting director Fernando Couto and coach Domingos Pacienca have had the same 'revolving door' experience over the summer, but Lennon feels they will stay consistent in their attacking attitude.
Lennon has great respect for Couto: "A great player, one of the golden generation of Portugal players along with Rui Costa and Figo. He was a quality player who had that touch of arrogance.
"It will be interesting to see what tactics he adopts but I can't see them varying their normal approach. They do have deficiencies, and we hope to exploit them."
Both Braga and Celtic have problems in the goalkeeping department, due to the departures of Portuguese and Polish internationalists Eduardo and Artur Boruc respectively.
Celtic's pursuit of David James is still not resolved, so presumed second choice Dominic Cervi was given the gloves against Lincoln City yesterday and looked more than capable of backing up Lukas Zaluska.
Braga have had to make an emergency re-signing to cover for the injured Quim, the former Benfica and Portugal star who began his career at the club to which he has now returned. Torn ligaments in the Achilles tendon area have ruled him out for months, and Brazilian Artur Moreas is also injured. The other Brazilian goalkeeper on their books, the veteran Marcos, has not played for the first XI for a year, so Mario Felgueiras has been brought back for a fortnight after being freed.
Lennon does not think he can make any more new signings before Wednesday, other than those already in train of happening. The Celtic manager confirmed last night that the signings of Biram Kayal from Maccabi Haifa and Gary Hooper of Scunthorpe United are almost complete, while Efrain Juarez is due to arrive today from UNAM Pumas in Mexico.
Aidan McGeady could well feature if his supposed move to Aston Villa does not materialise. Lennon said: "He has had a genuine injury, one that normally takes ten days to two weeks to sort, so we will see how he is tomorrow and see if he can start training, and he will travel with us."
Apart from the doubt over McGeady, Lennon could have a full squad to choose from on Wednesday: "We just a have a few niggles, such as Glenn Loovens' groin injury, but we have been taking precautions. We should be more or less at full strength and I can't see many missing out."
Having spent a fitful time at Sunderland, new signing Daryl Murphy's performance in training and against Lincoln City yesterday, where he scored on his debut in the hoops, has seen the Republic of Ireland striker on the verge of playing in the Champions League.
"He needed some game time and I am really pleased with him," said Lennon. "I took him off as we didn't want to take any chances with him.
"He's a handful and scored a good goal, so it augurs well for the start of the season. He hasn't done himself any harm and we'll see how he is over the next couple of days. He hasn't had a lot of time with the first team but he will be on the bench at worst."
A delighted Murphy can't wait: "I haven't played a lot of games in pre-season, but who doesn't want to play in the big games? And it is a massive game and even to be involved on Wednesday would be good, but if I could get on the pitch that would be a big bonus."
It would be Murphy's first competitive match for Celtic and possibly for several other new arrivals such as Juarez and Joe Ledley. It's a managerial debut, too, for Lennon, who enjoyed so many magical nights in the Champions League. He wants more of them at Parkhead this season, but Sporting Braga present a very tough test.
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Tuesday 21 May 2013
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