There will be a sense of an immovable object meeting an irresistible force when the clubs square up in the first leg of their Champions League third round qualifier on Wednesday. Yesterday’s 7-0 demolition of St Johnstone, coupled with the four straight European victories to see off Nomme Kalju – a 7-0 aggregate win sealed with a 2-0 midweek success in Estonia – and FK Sarajevo means Neil Lennon’s side have bagged 19 goals in only five competitive games.
In Romania they will be confronted by a team happy to surrender possession in the hope of sucking in their opponents and hitting them on the counter-attack.
There is no question that Dan Petrescu’s team represent a step up in class from Celtic’s previous two European opponents. Yet, equally, too much emphasis can be placed on Cluj as a club with a pedigree in continental competition. They may have made the Champions League group stages three times between 2008 and 2012, but that is no barometer when measuring the standard of the current side. They have overcome two tricky customers in Astana and Maccabi Tel Aviv in the past month, but last season Malmo, and Dudelange, ended their interest at the qualifying stages of the Champions League and Europa League respectively.
Lennon must respect a team who have won the Romanian title in each of the past two seasons, but certainly not be over-cautious in handling the threat posed by them, as was Celtic’s undoing in the Champions League qualifier against AEK Athens last summer.
“We have them watched obviously and they are a big, strong, physical and experienced team. So we know what we are up against,” said Lennon. “They are sort of around this mark and then every now and again dipping in [to the group stage], so it is a dangerous one. It is a step up in quality but we expected that to come at this stage.
“So it is going to be tough, particularly the first game, but it is good we are away first because it will give us a good look at them. They don’t give much away. They are shrewd and counter-attacked quite well in Israel. They didn’t give much away. The first leg against Maccabi was quite tense and cagey, and I expect this one will be no different.”
Celtic have a group of seasoned heads when it comes to dealing with the situations that present themselves on unfamiliar soil in the early weeks of a campaign. Scott Brown, James Forrest and Callum McGregor are a trio who have time and again demonstrated an ability not to panic if setbacks do crop up. And there is now a clutch of others, Lennon would stress.
“Callum is just your all-round top professional really. Browny is a great sidekick there. I quite like [Jozo] Simunovic in these sort of situations as well, he’s got good experience, [Kristofer] Ajer’s been strong so far and has the international experience as well now, so it’s not like they are a group of rookies going into it, but we’ll need all that experience.
“I don’t know how hostile or intimidating Cluj will be, but I know they will be physical and direct and we’ll need to defend well. They get the ball in early, they cross the ball early and they have good technicians in the team as well. I don’t think they are blessed with great flair but they are a really functional and effective team.
“The squad have done it twice under Brendan [Rodgers] to make it through the qualifiers and into the Champions League group stages. They were unlucky last year, and in the four games we have seen this year I have seen that experience. There is a good core there, particularly the Scottish guys. They know how to get it done and I am hoping for more of the same.
“It doesn’t make [winning] any easier but it does help. Handling the pressures, managing the bad moments in the game, they have looked really calm in the four games. I have been really impressed with the way they have played.”