James Forrest: Why new Euro qualifying format holds no fears for Celtic
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on next season’s schedule has led to European football’s governing body deciding the first three qualifying rounds of their flagship tournament will be one-off ties with home advantage determined by the luck of the draw.
The final play-off qualifying round will revert to the normal two-legged ties, meaning Celtic will have to negotiate five matches in total if they are to reach the lucrative group stage of the Champions League for the first time in three years.
While Neil Lennon’s side will be seeded in the first three rounds, they face some potentially hazardous assignments. Even in the first qualifying round, now rescheduled for 18 or 19 August, they could be handed a testing trip to clubs such as Swedish champions Djurgardens or Dynamo Brest of Belarus without the usual insurance of being able to overturn a defeat back at Celtic Park.
But winger Forrest, who is only four games short of making 100 European appearances for Celtic, is confident that the Scottish champions’ improvement on their foreign travels last season should stand them in good stead.
“We were really good away from home in Europe last season,” observed Forrest. “We beat Sarajevo and Nomme Kalju away in the Champions League qualifiers and then scored in a draw with Cluj. We had a lot of good games. We would have gone through had there been one-off matches last season.
“It will be different playing one-off ties and away games are always difficult. It can be a case of backs to the wall sometimes in Europe. But we’ve managed to put in some big performances and get some big results, like the win against Lazio in Rome in the Europa League last season. So we can look to the Champions League qualifiers with some confidence. We are used to playing teams in different countries and in different environments as well. The boys have gained a lot of experience.
“It will be different, something that nobody has been involved in before. But I think it will show the strength of character that the players in the team have and I am sure we will be able to get some positive results.
“Last season the European campaign was really positive – apart from just a couple of bad results against Cluj and Copenhagen at home which knocked us out of the Champions League and then the Europa League. But we did really well in our Europa League group. I think we played really well away to Copenhagen. But we didn’t do ourselves justice at home.”
The draw for the first batch of qualifiers is expected to take place in the week beginning 3 August, shortly after Celtic are scheduled to open the Premiership campaign and their quest for a record-breaking tenth consecutive Scottish league title.
“When you are at Celtic, the league is the most important thing,” added Forrest. “But you are always expected to get into the Champions League and put in big performances in Europe as well. That is always going to be there. The players all want to build on what we achieved in the Europa League last season.
“The younger players and the new players in the squad will have benefited from playing in Europe for the first time last season. It is good for everyone when you are playing against the best players and the best teams in Europe. It helps you to raise your game and get better as a player.
“There were disappointments in Europe last season, but there were a lot of positives as well and we can take that into this season. I scored a few goals in European games last season and will obviously be trying to do so again if I can, but all of the lads have shown they are capable of scoring.”
Celtic are now into their second week of training ahead of the 2020-21 campaign after Scottish football was placed in cold storage back on 13 March. Forrest admits regaining full fitness and match sharpness will be a significant challenge.
“If you ask any player, they will all tell you the same thing – you can keep fit but when you come back into training it is totally different,” he said. “You need a good few weeks of proper training to get up to speed.
“But the sports scientists and training staff have been really good. We were away for ten to 12 weeks and they kept us up to date and were constantly freshening things up. They kept putting wee challenges into our programmes.
“They gave us running schedules, for instance. They would do 5k challenges and the staff would get involved as well. Greg Taylor and Ryan Christie were always up at the top. Me? It’s not my type of running!
“But everyone has come back in great shape. We can kick on now and hopefully start contact training and training in bigger groups.
“It’s positive when you see football in Germany, Spain and England starting back again. When you see other countries playing, it’s encouraging.
“We are taking slightly more time in Scotland, but rightly so. Making sure everyone is safe is the most important thing. But it’s good that clubs are starting back training now. We have been back in over a week and other clubs are now training as well.
“It has given everyone a boost, the players and obviously the fans as well.”
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