Protecting a precious 1-0 lead from the first leg in Glasgow, Celtic would be forgiven for approaching tomorrow’s return leg in Azerbaijan with a degree of trepidation.
A bumpy, rock-hard pitch awaits them in Baku where the temperatures are expected to be around 40C. The prize on offer is a place in the play-off round of the Champions League, the last staging post before the money-spinning group stage.
Opponents Qarabag have promised that work will be carried out to repair the wrecked pitch at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium, but Celtic assistant manager John Collins has already stated that the Scottish champions will change their style of play to cope with the surface.
Collins suggested yesterday that Celtic would be more direct in Baku, a hint perhaps that the more physical Nadir Ciftci would be preferred up front to Leigh Griffiths. With the latter nursing a calf knock in any case, manager Ronny Deila’s choice may be a straightforward one. The pitch is a major concern for Celtic. They were stunned to discover almost a third of the playing surface has been severely damaged due to a virus that has affected the grass caused by a recent extreme heatwave.
Azerbaijan Football and Sports Management Ltd – the company which maintains the pitch – said yesterday it would do everything it could to make the surface playable.
The company’s chief executive, Framan Alizadeh, said: “We are trying everything possible to get the pitch ready at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium. At the beginning of the summer, the entire pitch was dug up and relaid in preparation for the new football season, but the work was delayed because the stadium was being used for other events.
“But we managed to get it ready for Qarabag’s game with Rudar Pljevlja last month. Unfortunately, the recent extreme high temperatures have affected the centre of the pitch.
“Temperatures have exceeded 40C outside, which has meant that the temperature of the lawn surface has reached as much as 55C.
“That kind of heat causes the formation of viruses in the turf.
“It has happened not just at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium, but other surfaces, too. Although we have stopped the growth of the viruses, it has not allowed the pitch much time to recover.
“I admit the pitch isn’t looking good, but everything possible is being done to fix it. We have experts working on it day and night. There is now no time to move the game, so we will prepare it to the best possible standard and hope it gives Qarabag the maximum chance of winning the tie because it is an important game for the club.”
A sentiment with which Celtic would concur.