Celtic facing long road to Champions League groups

Celtic's Leigh Griffiths at full-time against Qarabag in Baku. Picture: SNS
Celtic's Leigh Griffiths at full-time against Qarabag in Baku. Picture: SNS
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AS BEFITS a club currently in the top 50 of the Uefa rankings and among the seeded teams in the Champions League play-off round draw, Celtic will fear none of the five possible opponents they can be paired with in Nyon this morning.

Nonetheless, the Scottish champions may also find themselves in the curious position of regarding the lowest-ranked of those five teams as the worst possible outcome when the balls are pulled from the pots at Uefa headquarters shortly after 11am.

The near 8,000-mile round trip to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, is a familiar one to Celtic, who faced Shakhter Karagandy there at the same stage of the Champions League two years ago.

While they ultimately prevailed on that occasion, with a stoppage-time goal from James Forrest squeezing them through in a second-leg turnaround at Celtic Park, it was a nerve-shredding experience the Scottish champions will have no great desire to repeat.

FK Astana, the current Kazakh champions, are a lowly 286th in the Uefa rankings – 240 places below Celtic – but represent a challenge the five seeded clubs in the draw would all be happy to avoid.

Apart from the logisitical difficulties involved and the artificial playing surface at the Astana Arena, the well-funded club formed just six years ago have developed a more-than-capable side. They defeated Slovenian champions Maribor – Celtic’s conquerors in the play-off round last year – in the second qualifying round before claiming a dramatic 4-3 stoppage-time victory over HJK Helsinki of Finland on Wednesday.

The possibility of a return to Kazakhstan is just one of many intriguing sub-plots today’s draw presents for Celtic and their supporters.

The chief executive of Maccabi Tel-Aviv, the highest ranked of the non-seeded teams, will certainly be awaiting the outcome with interest.

Former Rangers chief executive Martin Bain has been in charge behind the scenes at the Israeli champions since September 2014. This summer he appointed former Watford manager, Slavisa Jokanovic, as manager as Maccabi bid to reach the group stage of the Champions League for the first time since 2005.

Celtic have never played Maccabi before, but have travelled to Israel twice to face their rivals Hapoel Tel-Aviv – in the Uefa Cup under John Barnes in 1999-2000 and then in the Europa League group stage under Tony Mowbray six years ago.

One of the most dramatic European ties in Celtic’s history will be readily recalled should they be paired with Serbian champions Partizan Belgrade, the second highest-ranked of the non-seeds. In the Cup Winners’ Cup of 1989-90, Celtic lost out on away goals to Partizan in the only previous meeting of the clubs, despite Polish striker Jacki Dziekanowski scoring four times in a 5-4 second-leg win for Billy McNeill’s side in Glasgow. The decisive goal for Partizan was stuck by Sladan Scepovic, father of the current Celtic striker, Stefan Scepovic.

This morning’s draw could also find Celtic manager Ronny Deila facing a club whose advances he spurned just five months before he arrived in Glasgow. Swedish champions Malmo offered Deila their head coach position in January 2014 but he turned it down to stay with Stromsgodset.

The job went to another Norwegian, veteran former national team boss Age Hareide, who has proved a considerable success at the club. Malmo, who have never previously faced Celtic, pulled off a notable 3-0 second leg victory over highly-fancied Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg to reach the play-off round.

Among the Malmo squad is Norwegian midfielder Jo Inge Berget, who had a loan spell at Celtic last season.

Completing the list of those who could stand between Celtic and a return to the group stage of the tournament are Albanian champions Skenderbeu Korce.

They made hard work of defeating Northern Ireland champions Crusaders 6-4 in the second qualifying round but were far more comfortable winners against Moldovan side Milsami in their next tie.

Skenderbeu have been champions of Albania for each of the last five years and are now the best-resourced club in the country as they seek to reach the group stage of the Champions League for the first time.

Celtic’s only previous trip to Albania came in 1979-80, during the totalitarian Communist reign of Enver Hoxha when they defeated Partizan Tirana in the first round of the European Cup.