CELTIC will go into the play-off round of the Champions League with both the odds and recent history in their favour.
Yesterday’s draw in Nyon paired Celtic with Swedish champions Malmö, an outcome greeted with cautious optimism by assistant manager John Collins.
It also provoked a clear response from the bookmakers who immediately priced the Scottish champions as short as 8-15 to reach the group stage for the third time in the last four seasons.
On those two most recent occasions Celtic have participated in the group phase of the tournament, they defeated Swedish opposition en route – sweeping Helsingborgs aside 4-0 on aggregate in the 2012-13 Play-Off round and then edging past Elfsborg 1-0 on aggregate in the third qualifying round two years ago.
Malmö have a greater European pedigree than both of those clubs and have enjoyed relatively recent success against Scottish teams, beating Rangers 2-1 on aggregate in the third qualifying round of the Champions League in 2011 and then humiliating Hibs 9-0 over two legs in the second qualifying round of the Europa League two years later.
But Celtic will go into the tie – with the first leg at Parkhead on 19 August and the return fixture at the Swedbank Stadium in Malmö on 25 August – confident they can make their seeded status count.
“We have got to believe that we can win the tie and qualify,” said Collins. “From a travelling perspective, it’s not too far away and it’s a nice place to go. Our homework starts right away, looking at footage of them, but we will also be able to get them watched a couple of times before the first leg.
“I looked at all the teams we could have got in the draw beforehand and it’s hard to tell if this is the best draw for us, because we haven’t seen all the teams play. So it’s guesswork. But we will find out in the next couple of weeks.”
Malmö are currently making an uncertain defence of their domestic league title, sitting in sixth place in the table just over halfway through the Allsvenskan season which runs from April to October.
They are seven points behind the leaders IFK Gothenburg who are the visitors to the 21,000-capacity Swedbank Stadium tomorrow. Malmö have another home league fixture, against Gefle next Saturday, before the first leg against Celtic.
They are coached by veteran former Norwegian national team boss Age Hareide who took charge of Malmö in January last year, shortly after the job was turned down by Celtic manager Ronny Deila when he was at Stromsgodset.
Hareide led Malmö – beaten finalists in the European Cup in 1979 – into the group stage of the Champions League for the first time in their history last season. They managed just one victory and lost their other five games in a tough section comprising eventual finalists Juventus, Atletico Madrid and Olympiakos.
But Malmö have ensured they will have the full respect of Deila and Collins after their eye-catching triumph over Red Bull Salzburg in the third qualifying round, beating the Austrian champions 3-0 at home this week after losing the first leg 2-0. “They must be a decent enough team given that result,” said Collins. “We all know from our games against Salzburg in the Europa League last season that they are a very good side. So Malmö will be a good footballing team with skilful players.
“Ronny will know all about their coach because he is Norwegian so that is another bonus. He will know what kind of system he likes to play and about his teams and players.”
One Malmö player well known to Celtic is attacking midfielder Jo Inge Berget who had a loan spell with the Scottish champions. The Norwegian international started just five matches for Deila’s side but has flourished since making a permanent move from Cardiff City to Malmö where he is their joint top goalscorer so far this season.
“We know all about Jo,” added Collins. “He has done well since he went there and has scored goals, made goals and we’ll look forward to seeing him. It was just down to competition for places that he didn’t play more for Celtic. We had lots of good players for his position so it was no slight on him.
“He came on loan, which is never easy, and he started off well but then tailed off a little bit and we went with players we had signed on long-term contracts. He was a good lad, everyone liked him, his attitude was great. It will be nice to see him but hopefully by beating him.”
The Malmö tie is worth a minimum of around £14 million and potentially as much as £20m for Celtic if they can claim a place in the group stage. It promises to be as fraught as the third qualifying round tie against Azerbaijani side Qarabag which Collins admits was something of a trial.
“There is a lot of tension involved,” he said. “I can’t say I enjoyed watching it in Baku on Wednesday. We never had enough of the ball for me to be relaxed on the touchline. But I never felt that we were really under a huge amount of sustained pressure.
“You can feel a little bit of tension all over the place, with supporters and players. It’s natural because the stakes are so big. Touch wood, once we qualify then things will be a bit more relaxed – less tension and more joy and happiness.
“The Champions League ticks every box. We all know the financial rewards are huge for a Scottish club. There is also the prestige. You are in with the big boys, the Bayern Munichs, Real Madrids and the English teams.
“That’s where we belong at Celtic. We have the infrastructure, the stadium, the support. We all know those other clubs have much more resources and money than us. But at this stage of the competition, the resources are similar in terms of the teams we are playing against.
“We all want to be hearing that Champions League tune at Celtic Park. We all love being part of it and when you are not part of it, it feels like something is missing. But it is not easy. We believe that if we play as well as we are capable of, then we can qualify.”
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE PLAY-OFF DRAW
Lazio v Bayer Leverkusen
Manchester United v Club Brugge
Sporting Lisbon v CSKA Moscow
Rapid Vienna v Shakhtar Donetsk
Valencia v Monaco
Astana v APOEL
Skenderbeu v Dinamo Zagreb
Celtic v Malmö
FC Basle v Maccabi Tel-Aviv
BATE Borisov v Partizan Belgrade
Ties will be played on August 18/19 and August 25/26