Celtic can expect a comfortable ride in Gibraltar

If there is any such thing as a gentle introduction to managing Celtic, then Brendan Rodgers should encounter it on Tuesday night.

The picturesque Victoria Stadium will host Celtic in this weeks Champions League qualifier.  Photograph: AFP/Getty
The picturesque Victoria Stadium will host Celtic in this weeks Champions League qualifier. Photograph: AFP/Getty

As opening assignments go, it could hardly be more benign for Rodgers than the Champions League second qualifying round tie against Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar.

Since Scotland’s plunging UEFA co-efficient ranking first obliged entry to the tournament at this early phase three years ago, Celtic have encountered little difficulty overcoming their initial hurdle in the quest to reach the group stage.

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In his final season in charge, Neil Lennon oversaw a 5-0 aggregate defeat of Northern Ireland’s Cliftonville, before Ronny Deila enjoyed 5-0 and 6-1 aggregate wins over Icelandic pair KR Reykjavik and Stjarnan respectively in his two campaigns at the helm.

On the face of it, taking on the semi-professional part-timers from the British Overseas Territory on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula should present as facile a test as Celtic have had in their 54 years of European club competition involvement.

Lincoln Red Imps have already upset the odds by securing what is unquestionably the biggest game in their history. They were unseeded in the first qualifying round and Rodgers has admitted he fully expected to be taking on Estonian champions Flora Tallinn in his first competitive outing as Celtic boss.

But the gritty and merited 3-2 aggregate victory achieved by Lincoln, who trailed 2-0 in the first leg in Tallinn before grabbing an away goal which laid the platform for their 2-0 win in Gibraltar last Wednesday night, has instead presented Celtic with a trip to the Victoria Stadium spectacularly situated in the shadow of the famous Rock.

The 2,000-capacity venue, named after the wife of John Mackintosh – a revered philanthropist whose family moved to Gibraltar from Scotland in the 19th century – plays host to every fixture played in the domestic league.

It is a competition which has been completely dominated by Lincoln since they first entered it in 1984. Since then, they have been champions of Gibraltar 22 times and are currently on a run of 14 titles in a row.

The club has its origins in a team called the Blue Batons, formed by police officers in Gibraltar for the purposes of their sons playing organised football. The change of name in the late 1970s was instigated by Reg Brealey, a former director of English club Lincoln City, who had business interests in Gibraltar.

Brealey – who would later become chairman and owner of Sheffield United before infamously selling that club to the consortium which included future Rangers chief executive Charles Green – provided playing kits and sponsorship as the club became Lincoln Red Imps.

Unsurprisingly, they provide the bulk of players who represent Gibraltar on the international stage in the wake of their acceptance as UEFA members in 2013. They include Lee Casciaro, the striker who scored Gibraltar’s first ever competitive goal at the expense of Scotland at Hampden in March 2015.

While that provided temporary discomfort for the Scots, levelling the score at 1-1, Gordon Strachan’s men went on to win 6-1. In total, Gibraltar conceded a record 56 goals over the course of the qualifying campaign, an illustration of the gulf in class which should also be replicated when Lincoln Red Imps face opposition of Celtic’s standard.

In their maiden Champions League campaign in 2014, Lincoln lost 6-3 on aggregate to Faroese side HB. Last season, they showed improvement by overcoming Santa Coloma of Andorra 2-1 on aggregate in the first qualifying round before losing 3-0 on aggregate to Danish champions Midtjylland who included current Celtic defender Erik Sviatchenko in their ranks.

Lincoln have a new coach at the helm this season in Julio Cesar Ribas, a 59-year-old Uruguayan who was previously in charge of the Oman national team. While the majority of his first-team squad are locals who have come through the club’s youth system, there is a smattering of players with senior experience from elsewhere.

They include veteran goalkeeper Raul Navas, who played in the Spanish top flight for Cadiz, midfielder Bernardo Lopes who was on Maritimo’s books in Madeira and playmaker Liam Walker who had a spell with Portsmouth.

Celtic can expect to face spirited, well-organised and highly motivated opponents in the first leg on an artificial pitch at the Victoria Stadium. But in the little part of the United Kingdom which delivered a 96 per cent vote in favour of remaining in the EU last month, the Scottish champions can anticipate nothing less than a result which will comfortably extend their own stay in Europe this season.