It isn’t only because Celtic will be playing a Greek team competitively for the first time in 44 years that Wednesday’s hosting of AEK Athens stands apart from Champions League qualifiers the club have played in recent times.
Not across the three campaigns that Brendan Rodgers nails in describing as “treacherous” have his team been pitted against so seemingly hazardous an opponent.
Greece currently sit 16th in the UEFA rankings, eight places above Scotland. Rodgers’ men have never faced a side in qualifiers from such a highly placed nation. Indeed, no team that Celtic or AEK will be matched up with in the Champions League play-off round draw to be made tomorrow will hail from a country in so lofty a position.
AEK may have only won their first title in 24 years last season – having endured financial disaster that led them to turn amateur in 2013 and work their way back through the league set-up – but in this same campaign they reached the last 32 of the Europa League. They did so without losing any of their eight games in the competition. With one win and five draws they progressed from a group that contained AC Milan, with whom them exchanged scoreless draws home and away. They were eventually ousted on the away goals rule by Dynamo Kyiv, another scoreless draw at home insufficient following a 1-1 scoreline in Ukraine.
Moreover, any bogus suggestions that AEK’s championship success was down to a points deduction meted out to rivals PAOK that followed crazy scenes towards the end of a scoreless derby between the pair should be parked. Even without what was effectively a seven-point swing that ensued from the small matter of PAOK owner Ivan Savvidis entering the field and threatening the referee for disallowing a last-minute goal after motioning towards a handgun he was carrying in a hip holster, AEK would have won through.
The Athens club firmly believe they are in the midst of a renaissance.
However, what Celtic will have in their favour on Wednesday evening’s first leg is that they are in the midst of fully recharging. Four qualifiers and a league opener will see Rodgers’ men somewhere near up to speed. For AEK, the trip to Glasgow will be their first competitive encounter since they lost the Greek Cup final to PAOK on May 12. They have had four friendlies to prepare for their Champions League tilt – the most recent of these a 3-2 victory over Galatasaray on Tuesday – and manager Marinos Ouzounidis admitted this week that his team “were not as sharp as they could be” and that the fact their domestic league does not get underway till the closing week of August was a “disadvantage”.
Celtic must, and can, exploit this. They aren’t bidding to become the first Scottish club three years on the spin to actually come through qualifiers to play in the Champions League without having such capabilities. Moreover, in racking up a second consecutive clean sheet on the road in Europe this season courtesy of Wednesday’s safe passage away to Rosenborg that set up their AEK meeting, they have demonstrated a stickability in unfamiliar continental surrounds. They will need that in spades in the unforgiving environment of Athens’ 69,000-capacity Olympic Stadium.
Set against that red-hot return, Rodgers is right to be encouraged that the collective of his team and the club’s support have made Celtic Park just as unforgiving for foes faced up in the Champions League group stages. In bringing their “aggression” to home first legs that in recent years have given them tie-winning scorelines of 5-2 against Hapoel Beer-sheva, 5-0 over Astana and, ten days ago, 3-1 to Rosenborg, they have shown that playing first at home need be considered anything but the drawback it was once considered.
“Mentally, you just get on and deal with what you are dealt,” he said, taking the same attitude to being set the onerous task of playing four qualifying rounds over eight weeks to earn Champions League football.
“I think lots of people would say, ‘first leg away and second leg at home’ but you can win the tie in the first leg so for us it’s very important wherever we play, home or away, that we are really aggressive and in a lot of the ties over the last couple of years we have won it in the first leg. We can get great momentum but also what’s been evident is the supporters’ appreciation of where the team is at.
“We went 1-0 behind against Rosenborg and I remember when I first came in against Astana and that was a different sort of feel. There’s a confidence now that, ‘OK we’ve conceded but we have enough here to get something from the game’ and that’s because the players have shown that mentality.
“I wouldn’t have thought [AEK would look forward to] the east end of Glasgow and 60,000... welcome to your neighbour. It’s notorious, Celtic Park, for the noise, the atmosphere and the passion that’s in Scotland here.”
Even the earlier start than Greek clubs in Europe could come into play this week. “It puts us at least somewhere close in what we will be fitness-wise. Rosenborg were well into their season, so that’s an advantage no doubt. The second, third and fourth round ties could all be the same level in difficulty, so we’ll prepare for another tough game.
“It’s a great testament to all the teams up here involved in European football.
“You’re not getting five weeks to prepare your team for the first game of the season, you virtually have no pre-season and then on top of that you are trying to juggle getting transfers in, so it’s certainly not an easy task but you have to find a way and we have seen in the last couple of seasons and so far we are finding ways.”
Ways have been found to negotiate the first two qualifying rounds without late-returning World Cup players Dedryck Boyata, Tom Rogic and Mikael Lustig, three integral figures in his squad. Although Boyata is only a week into his pre-season following Belgium’s third place finish in the Russian finals, he seems certain to face AEK.
“There is no doubt Dedryck is a big player for us,” Rodgers said.
“He has shown that. Both young guys did very well, especially in the latter stages of the game when they were starting to put it into the box. They did great. But of course for the next games we are going to be stronger as a squad because the experienced players will come back into it so that will really help us.”
Rodgers had an interesting take on the possibility of a familiar face returning to the Celtic set-up. Patrick Roberts is yet to have his future resolved at Manchester City following the end of his loan period in Glasgow. He could be a surplus performer in the 25-man squad named by the Pep Guardiola when the English transfer window closes in midweek and the Celtic manager did not rule out interest in that situation, with the player linked again with the Scottish champions this week..
“I think Patrick is one of those players you look at and then you see what happens over the next period of time,” said Rodgers. “He has obviously been away with Man City and he is there. Our eyes are open to lots of options.”
The Irishman, meanwhile, will ensure his team’s eyes are sure to be wide open to the clarity their play will require when AEK coming calling.