AS THEIR Champions League ambitions hang in the balance, Celtic’s summer transfer policy has been cited by many observers as the reason for the daunting assignment they face tomorrow night.
But midfielder Joe Ledley insists there will be no mitigating factors for the Scottish champions if they fail to overturn their 2-0 first leg deficit against unheralded Kazakhstan side Shakhter Karagandy in the Play-Off round tie at Celtic Park.
The sales of Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and Kelvin Wilson, all stalwarts of Celtic’s memorable Champions League campaign last season, preceded last Tuesday’s startling defeat in Astana. It has placed intense scrutiny on the club’s board in the build-up to a fixture which is the gateway to a potential £20 million bonanza in the group stage of Uefa’s elite tournament.
Welsh international Ledley, however, is adamant Celtic’s current squad should be more than capable of qualification.
“You don’t want to see your better players leave, but if the money is right and the deal is right, you can understand where the club is coming from,” said Ledley. “We still have a fantastic squad, we’ve brought in some good players and have kept a lot of our top ones as well. There’s only two or three changes from last season.
“So it’s definitely not an excuse. We played against Barcelona without Gary last season and won. We played games without Victor and Kelvin too and still won. So there are no excuses. We just need to go out there and perform as we can.
“It’s massive for us. We need this as a club, as players and as a team. There is so much riding on this game – it’s the biggest club competition in the world and we all love playing in it. The club needs it as well and it would be fantastic if we could achieve it. It would be very disappointing to go out at this stage, especially after doing so well last season in the group. It would be one of the lowest points of my career.
“I believe we can do it. You don’t want to be too confident but you need to believe in your team and the team we’ve got has some brilliant players. I think if you look at our team, we are good enough to qualify.”
Ledley anticipates facing a stifling rearguard action by Shakhter as they protect their lead but knows Celtic will also have to address the defensive vulnerabilities which have led to goals being conceded from long throw-ins in recent matches. “We’ll need to do far better defensively at set plays than we have done in our last couple of games,” he admitted. “Last season, we were fantastic at doing that. This season, not so good. But hopefully we can put it right on Wednesday.
“I think Shakhter will sit in and defend. Even in the first leg, they did that a lot and didn’t put a lot of pressure on us. We had a lot of possession, the most we have had for a long time in Europe. But they hit us on the break and scored two goals. They will probably try to do the same over here. We have to be very positive. We need to look at the positives which came out of the first leg, which were that we created chances on the night. It is obviously going to be very difficult from the position we are in. Shakhter defend well as a team and work their socks off.
“People had written them off pretty badly beforehand but we had watched DVDs of their previous games and knew they were going to be a good team. They are dangerous on set plays and that’s where one of their goals came from. It wouldn’t be nice to go out to any team. With the size of our club, the fan base there is and the players we’ve got, it would be very disappointing. But I can’t write them off and say how bad they are. For me, they did pretty well against us in the first leg.
“I don’t think they will ever have experienced anything like Celtic Park before, though. It’s a fantastic atmosphere at our place. You can’t even hear yourself shouting on the pitch on Champions League nights. It’s an immense atmosphere and hopefully Shakhter will be affected by it.
“The fans always play their part. They know what we have to do and they’ll be behind us from the off. As players, we want an early goal just as much as they do but in certain games it doesn’t happen and we just need to be patient, keep moving the ball and attack well as a unit. We need two goals no matter what. If we get them early, then it would be fantastic. But if it takes until the 90th minute, that would be fantastic for us.”
Shakhter’s first leg win was regarded in Kazakhstan as the greatest in the country’s football history and was celebrated as such by the Karagandy players. Ledley is determined that those scenes will prove to have been premature. “They did do a lot of celebrating after the first leg,” added. “It was obviously a fantastic result for them. But the tie’s not over, hopefully we can turn it around. They did a lot of celebrating when the tie isn’t over. It’s totally up to them if they want to celebrate like that. We are not really bothered. Hopefully we can turn it around and celebrate on Wednesday. It’s maybe a little bit of motivation. As players, we know we need to prove a lot of people wrong.”