HAVING seen off the Icemen, Celtic must now turn their attention to the Horsemen. That is the nickname by which Azerbaijani side Qarabag are known by their supporters and they are certainly one of the dark horses of the Champions League qualification process this season.
Much has already been made of the near 7,000-mile round trip Celtic face for the second leg of their third qualifying round tie against Qarabag in Baku on 5 August.
Ronny Deila’s side will certainly hope to carve out a decent lead and keep a clean sheet in the first leg at Celtic Park next Wednesday night.
The Celtic manager is under no illusions as to the potential degree of difficulty the Scottish champions could face against opponents who reached the group phase of the Europa League last season and lost just twice in a section which pitted them against Inter Milan, St Etienne and eventual finalists Dnipro.
A well-resourced club who have imported a core of talented Brazilian players, including star striker Reynaldo, Qarabag promise to be a real handful for Celtic.
But while accepting his team will need to improve significantly on the overall performance levels they delivered in overcoming Icelandic part-timers Stjarnan 6-1 on aggregate in the second qualifying round, Deila is also confident the tie is going to provide a major examination of Qarabag’s reputed ability.
We need to be at the level we showed against Inter Milan to get throughRonny Deila
“It’s important to understand it’s going to be hard for Qarabag as well,” said Deila as Celtic arrived home from Reykjavik in the early hours of yesterday morning.
“They have to come to Scotland the same as we have to go to Azerbaijan. So they also have a difficult journey to come to Glasgow. We have to prepare well and I think we will go to Baku one day before we normally would travel to allow us to adapt because it is a five- or six-hour flight.
“Qarabag are a very good team. They beat Twente Enschede in the Europa League play-off round last season and then did well in the group as well.
“So we have to be at the top of our game to win the tie. It’s a difficult draw for us but you can’t think like that. We have to take what is coming in front of us.
“We know we are good enough to win it. But we have to be at our best and at least we are at home first. That is going to be an important game.
“We have to step it up from how we played against Stjarnan but the players will do that. It’s normal that when you get bigger tasks you step it up. So we need to be at the level we showed against Inter Milan last season to get through.”
There was a temporary flutter of concern for Deila and the Celtic support on Wednesday night when Stjarnan opened the scoring just seven minutes into the second leg of the second qualifying round tie.
Celtic’s 2-0 first leg lead briefly looked less than impregnable on a poor artificial playing surface but they responded sufficiently to claim an ultimately comprehensive 4-1 win on the evening.
Deila believes it was an example of the collective mental strength his team have developed and which he feels will serve them well in the remainder of the qualifying campaign.
“I have been through games like that before on artificial surfaces against teams you should beat,” he said.
“The most important thing is to stay calm because something stupid can happen if you don’t. But I knew we were going to get chances and that if we got one goal we would get more. We did that.
“But you don’t want to concede, of course. You want to have it at 0-0 as long as possible. It would have been easy to panic. But we stayed calm because we have turned around games like this before and we did it again here. That’s a strength we have.
“The players are looking forward to every game now. Everybody knows that the longer you go in the competition, the better teams you meet. I’m just looking forward to next Wednesday now.
“It’s in the head as much as the legs in these qualifiers. You have to be concentrated and tactically good. You have to have good discipline in the team and patience is very important. We are going to be prepared for next week.”
Deila is also satisfied with the start Nadir Ciftci has made to his Celtic career, despite the Turkish striker failing to score in either leg against Stjarnan.
Leigh Griffiths did break his European duck for the club when he appeared as a second-half substitute and Deila is content he will be able to get the best from both players.
“Nadir has done some good things on the pitch so far,” he added. “He started very well when he came on in the friendly against Real Sociedad and he needs time. He is a young striker, but he has qualities we need here in the team.
“Leigh doesn’t need to knock on my door (to ask why he didn’t start the game) because I knock on his all of the time to talk with him.
“I talk a lot with my players and I have done a lot with Leigh over the last year. It is so important we have players who are able to be a sub sometimes and can go on and perform like he does. That’s team spirit and putting the team in front of yourself. If he continues doing this, it is hard to keep him out of the team.
“Both Nadir and Leigh have different qualities. When the games get open, Leigh is a very good player. It was open in the friendly against Eibar last weekend and he got his chances and scored a hat-trick, but it was going to be tighter in Iceland.
“We need players who score, so he is important. We can also play two up front if we want with both players. We haven’t done that much because we have not had the time for them to get used to doing it, so everything is a transition right now.”