AT THIS same stage of qualifying last year, then Celtic manager Neil Lennon was concerned about the prospect of his club’s Champions League hopes being hurt by friendly fire.
Circumstances deposited Mo Bangura, their own player, in the opposition ranks when Celtic took on the Swedish side Elfsborg in the second leg of their third qualifying round tie last season. At least the Scots had something to cling to – a 1-0 win secured in the first leg at Celtic Park, where the on-loan Bangura was given a hot reception.
Celtic have surrendered the comforts of playing at home in tonight’s Champions League third qualifying round, second leg against Legia Warsaw after renting out Celtic Park, where the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games was held.
It is a decision that could well come back to haunt them, although Peter Lawwell, the chief executive, would be well within his rights to argue that, should this indeed come to pass, then the tie was not lost at the second leg stage. Their problems stem from a miserable display in Poland when Celtic managed to slip to a 4-1 defeat that could well have been heavier had Legia not missed two penalties.
Each goal was a dagger in the heart of Celtic’s hopes of qualifying for the lucrative group stage, although Ronny Deila, Lennon’s successor, has suggested that even these wounds were self-inflicted. He blames the tiredness he perceived in his players on the club’s pre-season programme, which involved too much travelling across Europe for friendly matches.
It is at boardroom level, too, where the controversial decision to rent out Celtic Park was reached, meaning Celtic had to look elsewhere for a venue to host both tonight’s game and the home tie against KR Reykjavik in the previous round, which they won 4-0. Celtic need to score at least three times tonight if they are to progress to the play-off round.
However many Celtic supporters turn up at Murrayfield this evening, a stadium where a running track features in front of one stand can never command the bearpit qualities of Celtic Park, scene of a stunning Champions League qualifying comeback as recently as last season.
Celtic scored three times with no reply to overturn a 2-0 first leg defeat by Shakhter Karagandy, with Celtic Park in ferment as James Forrest struck the decisive goal in the dying moments. There was some good news last night for Celtic as they prepare to engage with the task of rescuing another tie, with Forrest, the talisman nearly a year ago, joining in with training at Murrayfield last night.
The winger has been suffering with a groin problem, and was expected to miss out tonight. However, his involvement in training has raised hopes he might be able to play some part in the second leg, and if he can contribute such a significant goal as against Shakhter Karagandy then so much the better.
Deila placed great store in Celtic’s recent experience of staging a comeback success although he himself has no such memories from his managerial career to help sustain him. “In Norway we only played one leg, and then we were out – we have a second chance here so that’s a positive thing,” he smiled. “We [Celtic] have done it before and when we get the crowd on our side – as they did against us in Poland – we can do it. They could get stressed and we could score the three goals. We are never going to give up and we know the players have had magic nights before at Celtic. That’s why we can do it again.”
The difference is that Celtic are not “at Celtic” on this occasion. They are at a rugby stadium, 40 or so miles to the east of their home ground. They will be playing in front of a crowd that is expected to fall some way below capacity, and below the number that would have been expected to turn up at Celtic Park. Henning Berg, Deila’s compatriot and opposite number at Legia Warsaw, last night suggested that the switch in venues is not a significant factor.
“Yes, it’s a big atmosphere at Celtic Park, like it was at Ibrox,” said the former Rangers defender. “But there will still be 60,000 supporters.”
There were no ticket sales figure forthcoming from Celtic last night, but the suspicion that the tie is now beyond their team looks set to keep numbers to far lower than Berg’s estimate. On the issue of Murrayfield, Deila sounded vexed.
“Listen, it didn’t look like a problem when you look at the game against Reykjavik,” he argued. “It was a good performance and the atmosphere was very good. Again, this is something I can’t do anything about. The players can’t either so I haven’t thought a lot about that. When I go into the stadium I feel at home. I feel like this is going to be a good atmosphere and I’m looking forward to the game.”
Without the suspended centre-half Efe Ambrose, Celtic must ensure they do not concede a goal. But, just as crucially, they will also need to score at least three, possibly more. Asked whether he will employ a more conventional two-man attack against the Poles, Deila said: “We play with two all the time – Kris Commons and [Teemu] Pukki or Stokesy. I count that as two strikers. Last year they scored 50 goals together.”
Deila disagreed that it would take a “miracle” to progress. What he said it would need was a good, patient performance by his players. However, he acknowledged it would be “up there with the best nights of my life” if Celtic succeed in a mission rendered tougher still by a questionable decision to relocate.