A LOT of water has flowed under the bridge since Paul Hartley helped Celtic progress on the last occasion the Parkhead side were involved in the group stage of the Champions League.
The midfielder has now become a manager with Alloa Athletic and has also had spells as a player with Bristol City and Aberdeen since scoring a crucial away goal in the Champions League qualifying round clash with Spartak Moscow five years ago.
Hartley then went on to play a significant part in Celtic’s success as they qualified in second place at the expense of Benfica, who they play tomorrow night in Glasgow as the Parkhead side make a long overdue return to the Champions League stage. Sparkak, who can now count on the services of former Celtic player Aiden McGeady, have also been drawn in the same group, as have Barcelona, the conquerors of Gordon Strachan’s side at the last 16 stage in 2008. It is a mouthwatering prospect and one Hartley believes will stand the current players in good stead.
“I was very fortunate in playing in most of the Champions League games, and you grow as a player and hopefully the confidence should get higher,” he said, with reference to the rather underwhelming way in which Celtic prepared for the visit of the Portuguese side, courtesy of a 2-1 defeat at St Johnstone. The majority of the Celtic side have not tasted the Champions League before but Hartley believes that these players will be helped by their experience of playing in front of large crowds at Parkhead, where Celtic will hope to make the most of home advantage.
“No disrespect to the SPL but this will be stepping up a couple of levels to play a better quality of player,” said Hartley. “Neil [Lennon] has played at this level himself and has good experience to pass on to his players. The important thing is to not play the occasion. It’s about maintaining concentration and focus.
“You have to enjoy it andmake sure you are ready for it. A lot of the clubs involved might not play in front of a big support every week and suddenly they step out in front of a full house. But Celtic will be ready for that.”
Hartley is confident that Celtic can finish in second place, like they did in season 2007-08. Helping hugely towards achieving this qualifying place was the fact they won all three of their home fixtures, including a memorable 2-1 triumph over AC Milan.
“It’s a tough group,” Hartley commented. “Barcelona will be the favourites and rightly so but I think Celtic have a chance of finishing second. It’s important they are starting with a home game because they have always been fairly strong at Parkhead in the Champions League.
“That was certainly the case during my time there so I think it will be important that they get off to a winning start on Wednesday night. The balance of this group is quite similar to ours because you always thought that Milan would be the favourites to win it, but second place was wide open. I think a good start will be really important and the supporters can help with that because the atmosphere will be tremendous. But I’m sure Neil will stress to his players the importance of getting off and running because you don’t want to be playing catch up in the early stages when you are going to play the next two games away from home.”
Celtic’s form on the road in Europe once gave real cause for concern. They lost all three away fixtures the last time they were in the group stage of the Champions League. However, each defeat was by a narrow margin and Hartley believes his strike in Moscow, when Celtic eliminated Spartak to qualify for the group section, handed his side a “psychological breakthrough”. He added: “Everybody kept reminding us that we hadn’t won away in Europe for such a long time. We put it right that night by managing to get a 1-1 draw and I think it was a really important moment for the club.”
Celtic have already won twice away from home in Europe this season, and they will face further testing encounters at both the Stadium of Light and the Nou Camp, as well as when they return to Spartak’s Luzhniki Stadium.
Hartley can recall the frustration at conceding a late winner to Benfica in Lisbon five years ago. Oscar Cordoza, who scored the deciding goal that night, is still with the Portuguese club.
“We rode the storm a wee bit,” he said. “We were under intense pressure. We were away from home anyway and we thought we were maybe going to nick a point. They were a quality team in a great stadium with great history.”
Cordoza, he added, “had great movement, great touch. He is a goal machine. And he has probably improved in the time from four or five years ago.”
Hartley, meanwhile, has moved on. Instead of savouring the prospect of a return to the Champions League, he is hoping Alloa can bounce back from a 2-0 loss to Stenhousemuir at the weekend. His side host Stranraer on Saturday.
• Paul Hartley was speaking at an event to launch the third year of the Tesco Bank Football Challenge. Almost 40,000 children across 1,000 schools are now involved in the programme.