There is masterful, and deliberate, understatement from Brendan Rodgers when it comes to Champions League qualifiers. Monumental hardly even does justice to the scale of the play-off first leg against Astana at Celtic Park on Wednesday.
The Kazakhstani side are unbeaten across 14 European home games; albeit with eight draws in that total. In all competitions, they have lost only once on their hybrid pitch in almost a year. It is nothing less than imperative that Celtic take at least a two-goal lead out to Asia next week, then. Astana are no Rosenborg, where Celtic’s 1-0 win in Trondheim, that offset a scoreless Parkhead first leg, was the fourth home loss for the Norwegians in continental competition in the past two years.
Rodgers knows the requirement this week, full well. Yet, by publicly saying as much he would simply be heaping pressure on his players and red flagging that they are being pitched into the most must-win of must-win games. With priceless prestige and a pricetag of £25 million resting on this final obstacle to the Champions League group stage, such hype is only likely to cause hyperventilating among a group he wants to retain their equilibrium and exude commitment, concentration and calm.
That was the Irishman’s approach as he assessed a re-match with the soon-to-be four-in-a-row champions of Kazakhstan, whom Celtic overcame last season in a third-round qualifier. Yet last year – when an injury-time penalty from Moussa Dembele in a return leg 2-1 home win was required for progress – might be largely irrelevant owing to the order of the ties being reversed. It is more problematic to have to win the tie in the first leg, but Rodgers did not dwell on that.
“It’s going to be a tough game for us,” he said. “The first game is important. At home, the atmosphere has been absolutely incredible in the Champions League games in particular so we’ll need that on Wednesday night. We’ll see if we can get a positive result to take over there the following week.”
Rodgers avoided giving a direct answer when asked how much of a step up Astana will be from Rosenborg. Certainly, while the Celtic manager believes his team are more accomplished than a year ago, he doesn’t believe the Kazakhstani side are a whole lot different from last August. Their intelligent playmaker Azat Nurgaliyev has departed, as too has Agim Ibraimi, scorer of a 35-yard screamer at Celtic Park. However, the strike pairing of Ghanaian forward Patrick Twumasi and Congo international Junior Kabananga appear even more potent than a year ago. With a variety of offers being lodged for both, the club were moved to pledge this week that the pair would not be sold before the ties against Celtic. That followed Twumasi stating earlier in the week that he wanted to be allowed to sign for Bursaspor. The duo have netted 11 of the club’s last 17 goals, while Kabananga was also top scorer in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations.
“Astana are different to Rosenborg,” he said. “I thought Rosenborg were a very good team, good structure, they make you work, play a really good style of football and have some dangerous players. [Astana] have a little less structure, but have other individual qualities in their players. Twumasi is fast, direct, dynamic. I can see why other teams would want him. The big striker up front is a handful with his size, awkwardness.
“But it’s certainly a team we will go and be aggressive with to get a good result. We got the better of them over the two games last year with a last-minute winner. It won’t be won on Wednesday. This will be over the course of two games. Our approach is to dominate.”
And do so without any fretting over the potential for the season being deeply scarred before September by Champions League failure – as befell the club in the Ronny Deila era.
“I hope nerves are not a factor, I don’t think [they will be]. I think we had that in the last round as well, everyone talked about the pressure of going out to Rosenborg. Then we made 750-odd passes in the game, were dangerous and played with really good composure. So I don’t see that.
“[There can] sometimes be a wee bit of anxiety in the crowd, of course, when you are so close. But we will get incredible support and the team will hopefully perform and take a lead over.”
There are anxieties Celtic followers will wrestle with even before they pitch up at the stadium. The absence of Leigh Griffiths from the starting line-up in Friday night’s win over Partick Thistle as the result of an on-going calf problem served as confirmation that the club do not have a fully fit striker.
The long-term absence of Moussa Dembele with a hamstring tear has caused Rodgers to revise his belief that he has enough cover in operating with the pair. It is understood the club are pushing hard to have Patrick Roberts on board as their Champions League wild card and a third forward will be recruited.
“I have to look at the striker position because I want to go with two and have a young third one. But if the fitness level isn’t there then I have to consider it,” said the Celtic manager, who expects Griffiths to be “fit and flying” on Wednesday.
“I will have to look at something. I will have a close look at that between now and the end of August because I think James [Forrest] and some of the others do great up there but if we’ve strikers not available then I may need to look at more cover for us there.”
Concern was also expressed by Rodgers over the never-ending contract saga surrounding Stuart Armstrong. The golden boy of last season is now having to settle for brief appearances from the bench. Armstrong’s more peripheral role appears to stem from the inability to come to an agreement over an extension to his contract that expires next summer and the attendant reports he will depart to England. None of that is lost on Rodgers.
“For the boy, I would want it resolved. Because you can see it. You can see it in him. He’s a very conscientious boy, Stuart. He’s not one of these boys who can just sack it off and just play and not think and worry.
“I genuinely think he wants to be here at Celtic. And he just wants it resolved. And he probably wanted it resolved six, seven months ago. For whatever reason it hasn’t.
“It has affected him. So I think for him, because he’s a great lad and I love and enjoy working with him, it’s starting to take its toll on him a wee bit. Hopefully we can get that resolved and he can settle down again and find that stability and find that form he was in for about seven months of last season.”