Niko Kranjcar’s dad could block Celtic in Champions League

Celtic's reward for defeating Astana could be a clash with Dinamo Zagreb. Picture: SNS

Celtic's reward for defeating Astana could be a clash with Dinamo Zagreb. Picture: SNS

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A current Rangers player’s father, who was involved in the most infamous European tie in Celtic’s history, could stand between Brendan Rodgers and a place in the group stage of the Champions League.

Today’s play-off round draw in Nyon is laced with intriguing possibilities for Celtic, perhaps none more so than a tie against a Dinamo Zagreb side managed by Zlatko Kranjcar.

The 59-year-old, whose son Niko signed for Rangers this summer, is now in his third spell in charge of the Croatian champions, who are the highest ranked of the five potential opponents Celtic could be paired with.

Kranjcar has no shortage of previous experience of facing Celtic on the continental stage. During his playing career, he was a member of the Rapid Vienna side which eliminated Celtic from the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1984 in hugely controversial circumstances.

Uefa upheld an appeal from Rapid over crowd disorder at Parkhead in the second leg of the second-round tie which Celtic won 3-0 to overturn a 3-1 defeat in Vienna, despite TV pictures showing one of the Austrian players had feigned being struck by a 
bottle thrown on to the pitch.

The second leg was replayed at neutral Old Trafford where Rapid won 1-0. Kranjcar played in all three matches.

During his second stint as manager of Dinamo Zagreb, he oversaw another win over Celtic in the final qualifying round of the Champions League in 1998. After losing 1-0 at Parkhead, Kranjcar’s side romped to a 3-0 victory in the return.

Celtic have faced Dinamo on two other occasions in Europe. In 1963, they defeated them 4-3 on aggregate in the second round of the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

Just two seasons ago, the clubs were drawn in the same Europa League group. Celtic won 1-0 at home and lost 4-3 in Zagreb on their way to qualifying for a last 16 tie against Inter Milan at Dinamo’s expense.

Dinamo have opened this season brightly under Kranjcar, making an unbeaten start to their domestic title defence and overcoming Macedonian champions Vardar and then Dinamo Tbilisi of Georgia to reach the Champions League play-off round.

They would be arguably the toughest opponents, although Bulgarian champions Ludogorets Razgrad and Danish title winners FC Copenhagen could also present formidable obstacles.

Ludogorets, a well-funded club laced with Brazilian imports, beat Red Star Belgrade 6-4 in the third qualifying round. They are a side well known to Celtic boss Rodgers. During his only Champions League campaign as Liverpool manager, Rodgers faced them in the 2014-15 group stage – drawing 2-2 in Bulgaria and winning 2-1 at Anfield.

Copenhagen have cruised into the play-off round, crushing Northern Ireland champions Crusaders 9-0 on aggregate in the second qualifying round and then overcoming Astra Giurgiu of Romania 4-1 on aggregate in the third qualifying round.

They are coached by former Wolves boss Stale Solbakken, now in his second spell in charge. During his first stint at the club, Copenhagen faced Celtic in the group stage of the 2006-07 Champions League – losing 1-0 at Parkhead then winning 3-1 at their own 
Parken Stadium.

The two remaining possible opponents for Celtic would appear to offer less strenuous challenges for the 
Scottish champions but no-one is likely to underestimate either Hapoel Beer-Sheva or Dundalk.

Champions of Israel for the first time in 40 years last season, Hapoel stunned Champions League group-stage regulars Olympiacos when they defeated the Greek side 1-0 on aggregate in the third qualifying round this week.

Beer-Sheva, situated just 30 miles from the Gaza Strip in southern Israel, now boasts the new Uefa-approved Turner Stadium which was opened last year and where Hapoel host their European ties.

Irish champions Dundalk, however, will have to relocate for their play-off tie. Their own Oriel Park does not meet Uefa requirements and the Tallaght Stadium in south Dublin – where they produced a stunning 3-0 second-leg win over Belarus champions BATE Borisov this week to win their third qualifying round tie – is not big enough to accommodate interest in what would be one of the biggest matches 
in the history of Irish club football.

Moving will be no hardship for the County Louth club, however, as they relish the reward for their stunning 3-1 aggregate win over BATE 
Borisov.

The Aviva Stadium in Dublin would be a potential venue if they were paired with Celtic, a tie which would spark huge interest in Ireland. The clubs have met once before in 
competitive action when Celtic had to work hard for a 3-2 aggregate win in the second round of the European Cup back in 1979.

Managed by Stephen Kenny, the former Dunfermline Athletic boss, Dundalk have won their domestic league in the past two seasons after a spell in the doldrums. They are skippered by former Falkirk midfielder Stephen O’Donnell.

Although no-one at Celtic will take anything for granted, regardless of the outcome of today’s draw, Brendan Rodgers would surely privately reflect on enjoying the luck of the Irish if only a short trip across the water stands between him and a place in the Champions League proper.

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