Stuart Duff last night warned Celtic they face a ‘Martin O’Neill like’ team as they gear up to tackle Shakhter Karagandy in their crunch Champions League play-off clash.
The former Dundee United and Aberdeen player, who plays for Kazakhstan Premier League outfit FC Kairat, has experienced at first hand what it is like to go head-to-head with the Kazakhstan champions and admits it can be a daunting physical prospect.
Duff moved to Central Asia last year and insists Karagandy, nicknamed the Miners, have the kind of man-made mountains which O’Neill used to rely on during his successful time at the Parkhead helm.
Duff said: “It’s an unbelievable tie. I thought before the draw was made that it would be amazing if Celtic were paired with Shakhter and had a feeling they would. It will be a very tricky away leg for Neil Lennon and his players.
“They are a very big, physical side who like to dominate other teams. That is the one thing which sticks out most when you go to play them.
“They had two huge guys – both about 6ft 5in – at the heart of their defence who can intimidate opposition strikers. Also, up front, they were very imposing, so it’s obviously something their manager likes in his players.
“Come to think of it, they are actually a bit like a Martin O’Neill side which was built a lot on height and strength. So Celtic will have to be prepared for a battle because that’s what they might end up getting across here.
“Don’t get me wrong, Shakhter do have skilful players in their ranks, as they wouldn’t be champions for nothing. But they don’t think twice about launching the ball up front and turning defence into attack just like that.
“It’s a tactic which has worked well for them and I don’t see them changing it for anyone.”
Lennon’s team will have to steel themselves for another artificial encounter after their midweek visit to Elfsborg which has taken them to within 180 minutes of the money-spinning group stages.
Duff said: “They will change the game to the Astana Arena, which is the new National Arena. It’s a brilliant stadium, although it’s synthetic surface.
“I’m sure Celtic would probably prefer to play on grass but this is a decent surface where you can play football. It’s brand new and will be better than Elfsborg by miles, so that shouldn’t be a concern for Celtic come the night.”
Duff is loving life in his adopted homeland and admits he’s already thinking about getting his hands on big-game briefs. He said: “I’d definitely like to go up and see the game.
“I’m friends with Charlie Mulgrew from our time together at Aberdeen so will be wishing him all the best.
“It’s only about an hour-long flight from where I’m based and it will be good to see it live. People are already talking about it here because they know all about Celtic.
“They’re a huge club, as I know from my time in the SPL, and beating Barcelona obviously sent some shockwaves round Europe last year.
“You would fancy Celtic to go through over two legs but they certainly won’t get it easy in the first leg in Kazakhstan.
“We played them three times last season and lost twice and drew once.
“There’s no doubts they’re a competent side and will be really fired up for a team the size of Celtic coming to town.”