NEIL LENNON has described a trip to his homeland in the second qualifying round of the Champions League as a “hell of a draw” but the assignment against Cliftonville next month should provide a relatively straightforward start to Celtic’s bid to reach the group stage of the tournament for the second successive season.
For the first time in their European history, Celtic will face opponents from Northern Ireland when they take on the Belfast club who won their domestic title for the first time in 15 years last season.
Lennon’s quickly tweeted reaction to yesterday’s draw, held at Uefa headquarters in Nyon, perhaps reflected the personal significance of leading Celtic into action in the city where threats to his safety prompted him to retire from international football back in 2002. Speaking later on in the day, he expressed his enthusiasm for the tie.
“It will be the first time I will have taken Celtic to a competitive game back home so that is something to look forward to,” said Lennon. “But we will be totally motivated, obviously, to play as strongly as we can and try and win the tie.
“It’s a great draw – a great draw for Cliftonville as well I would imagine. It will create a lot of interest back in Belfast but I am very wary of the tie. I know Gerard Lawlor, the chairman, very well and I know he will be absolutely delighted with the draw, and there will be a lot of familiar faces.
“We have three ties this year and our short-term priority will be to qualify for the group stages, which would mean a lot to everyone associated with the club. I’m not expecting us to have the same impact as last season but you just never know.”
The tie is hugely significant for Cliftonville, whose fans traditionally have an affiliation with Celtic. The first leg is scheduled to take place at Celtic Park on 16 or 17 July, with the return in Belfast a week later. As it stands, Cliftonville intend to host their home fixture at their 2,500-capacity Solitude stadium.
Celtic have played there before in friendly fixtures, most notoriously in 1984 when the game at Solitude was abandoned 11 minutes from time because of crowd disorder. Rubber bullets were fired by police and 25 people were taken to hospital. But more recently, Celtic sent a shadow team to play in Cliftonville’s 130th anniversary match in 2009 and it passed off without incident.
Although the dominant domestic side in Northern Ireland last season, Cliftonville lost 4-1 on aggregate to Swedish side Kalmar in the first qualifying round of the Europa League, which would appear to provide a clearer picture of the standard of opposition facing Celtic.
Cliftonville’s main threat will be posed by striker Liam Boyce who scored 36 goals last season. The 22-year-old had a brief trial period at Celtic in 2010 before signing for Werder Bremen. After failing to make the first-team breakthrough with the Bundesliga club, he returned to Cliftonville.
Celtic defender Adam Matthews welcomed the draw as he and his team-mates prepare for the three qualifying ties they will need to negotiate over a six-week period if they are to taste Champions League group stage action again. “We’re happy with the draw,” said Matthews. “We’re just looking forward to the first game now. We could have got a lot worse teams but we know it’s going to be a tough game, especially when we go to their ground.
“We’ve got to respect them and treat it like a Champions League game. They’ll want to beat us at our place but hopefully we can get a few goals in the first leg to take over there.
“From our point of view, we’ve experienced the group stages now and want that every season. That’s our main goal so we’ll play every game like we’re playing Barca again or Juventus in the last 16.
“We really want to get to the group stage again. We know as a club we need to be playing at that level. We showed last season we can compete against the best teams. We just want to taste that again.
“There is pressure on us. Everyone wants to play Champions League football. I know we’re in the qualifiers but it’s not Champions League proper until you get to the group stage. That puts pressure on these games but I think we enjoyed them last season and enjoyed getting through.”
Cliftonville manager Tommy Breslin expressed his delight at the pairing with Celtic which his club had been hoping for ever since they secured their Champions League qualifying place.
“It’s totally amazing and a dream come true,” said Breslin. “It’s great for the club, players and supporters. It rounds off what was a fabulous season for Cliftonville. We knew we were in with a chance of getting them but to get it is beyond our wildest dreams.”
The tie will represent a competitive debut in Celtic colours for new signings Amido Balde and Virgil van Dijk but it remains to be seen if Victor Wanyama will still be with the Scottish champions. The Kenyan midfielder, for whom Celtic are reported to have agreed a fee of around £12 million with Southampton, is also being linked with English Premier League newcomers Cardiff City.
Matthews, who joined Celtic from the Welsh club two years ago, believes Wanyama would be a success in England’s top flight but feels he could be setting his sights higher.
“Victor’s performances for Celtic last season show he could go to a bigger club than Cardiff,” said Matthews. “I don’t think you can compare Cardiff with Celtic, really. Celtic’s fan base is worldwide. Cardiff is a completely different team to when I was there, they’ve done really well to get into the Premier League and I’m happy for them. But I have no regrets about coming to Celtic.
“It would be hard for Victor to emulate what he experienced in the Champions League with Celtic if he goes anywhere else. The Premier League is definitely stronger than the SPL but playing in the Champions League will hopefully make him stay and taste that again.
“If we could keep hold of Victor, it would be brilliant. But if he goes, I’m sure the gaffer will bring in some brilliant players with the money we would get for him.”
First qualifying round (2-3 July and 9-10 July): Shirak v Tre Penne, Lusitanos v EB/Streymur
Second qualifying round (16-17 July and 23-24 July): Neftci v Skenderbeu; Steaua Bucuresti v Vardar; Plzen v Zeljeznicar; FC Sheriff v Sutjeska; Birkirkara v Maribor; Sligo Rovers v Molde; IF Elfsborg v FC Daugava; HJK Helsinki v Nomme Kalju; FK Ekranas v FH Hafnarfjordur; The New Saints v Legia Warsaw; Celtic v Cliftonville; Dinamo Zagreb v CS Fola Esch; Gyor v Maccabi Tel-Aviv; BATE v Shakhtyor Karaganda; Shirak/Tre Penne v Partizan Belgrade; Slovan Bratislava v Ludogorets; Dinamo Tbilisi v Lusitanos/EB/Streymur