IT IS possible to be selective with the facts and figures and create the impression that their Champions League play-off tie away to Shakhter Karagandy on Tuesday is a stinker for Celtic.
Equally, crunch the numbers to suit and you could say it is nothing short of a stonker for Neil Lennon’s side.
Put to one side all the natter about deepest, darkest Kazakhstan, a country so distant in being both 3,000 miles away and in Asia that Celtic required to take a six-and-a-half-hour flight last night to reach the capital, Astana, a city with a five-hour time difference from Scotland.
Celtic aren’t playing a place, though, but a team. Ah, but the fearful will say, their path to the Champions League group stages is blocked by a side who took out BATE Borisov – victors over tournament winners Bayern Munich last season – with 1-0 wins home and away. Yet Karagandy are also the team with the lowest co-efficient that Celtic could have drawn. They are ranked 324th in European football, below St Johnstone. Moreover, six of the players likely to line-up against Lennon’s men also played as St Patrick’s Athletic knocked them out of the Europa League two years ago.
The past two years may have brought back-to-back titles for a team that had previously no such pedigree, but coach Viktor Kumykov has admitted Celtic operate on a different level. His club have no oligarch, if you will. Indeed, despite their recent domestic dominance, which seems set to come to an end in the country’s summer league, only two players – keeper Aleksandr Mokin, and matchwinning striker Sergei Khizhnichenko – played in Kazakhstan’s 1-0 friendly win over Georgia in midweek.
With a place in the Europa League the consolation prize for the losers in the Champions League play-off, whatever happens, Karagandy will make history by becoming the first Kazakhstan side to compete in the group stages of a European tournament. It is the culmination of his dreams for one club forward, Andrei Finonchenko, the boyhood supporter who has netted more than 100 goals for Karagandy.
A functional, fire-high-balls-into-the-box team, by all accounts and YouTube evidence, their wins over BATE owed much to good fortune, not least in the fact their opponents missed a penalty. Yet, they have copped a bad break in UEFA relegations forcing them to play 135 miles from their own ground in the Astana Stadium, with its artificial surface. Although it will be the fourth occasion they will have done so this year – the last time only yesterday, in the league against FC Astana – it is not a true “home” venue, requiring the team to take a three-hour bus trip to reach it.
The futuristic nature of the venue, opened only in 2009 and with a fully-retractable roof, is emblematic of the grandiose, ultra-modern redesign that Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev is pouring billions of dollars into as a pet project. It’s a backdrop that renders laughable some notions that Celtic might be entering a backwater later today.
Astana, declared capital at Alamaty’s expense by the president in 1997 and host of Expo17, has been likened to the Dubai of the region. Like that city, in parts it is a gauche totem to conspicuous wealth, contains vast, pointless structures and has a dreadful human rights record and desperate living conditions for the people who live and exist away from the centralised spend. Not that Celtic will be get any sense of the place in the rare moments they stray from their five-star hotel. As the first side representing Scotland at any level, the tie is historic. And aspects of preparing for it have undoubtedly been problematic. A number of Celtic’s internationalists who were out of the country last week have had to be granted dispensation from the country’s minister of sport to obtain visas on point of entry today.
The other issue for Lennon is acclimatisation. “We were speaking to the Irish association last week in Dublin and they were saying they went a day too late [when the Republic played Kazakhstan],” he said. “Hence the reason we are leaving more or less straightaway after the Aberdeen game. The recovery day on Sunday is going to be really important after the game and after the flight. We will probably bring our own water and we may bring our own chef to make sure the food is OK as well but by all accounts where we are going is quite Westernised. It’s just a question of keeping the guys as fresh as we can. There’s going to be a big time difference and a long flight. So getting them up and about on the Sunday is going to be important.”
Lennon hopes that the Astana plastic pitch proves to have more give and is quicker than Elfsborg’s artificial surface, which his team struggled to master in the last round.
The Celtic manager had coach Garry Parker watching Karagandy yesterday and appears relatively relaxed about boning up on a team “that don’t muck about, they try and get the ball forward quickly and play a pretty British-type game”. It would appear that Lennon doesn’t intend to muck about either. Asked if an away goal would be important, he ventured that the aim could be to bag two in Astana. “I’m not convinced they will travel well,” said Lennon of a team that have posted only one away league win this campaign. “If we’re in the tie coming back then we’ll have a chance of qualification. They’ve got to come here and I think home advantage, with everything to play for, we’ll be heavy favourites if the tie is tight.”