Commiserations rather than celebrations tend to be common when it comes to Scotland and European competition in the early part of any season.
Celtic manager Neil Lennon welcomed a break from that norm after it was confirmed the other day the country will have two teams in the Champions League qualifying stages next summer. Indeed, should Basel lose to Shakhtar Donetsk in their Covid-19-delayed Europa League quarter-final on Tuesday, Scotland will remain 14th in the Uefa rankings. That outcome would ensure that successfully completing ten-in-a-row would enter Celtic at the third qualifying round – two rounds later than this season.
Of more immediate concern for the Celtic manager, even ahead of this afternoon’s visit to Kilmarnock, is the draw for this year’s Champions League first qualifying round. That will take place this morning, with the draw for the next round held tomorrow. If they progress, Celtic will be seeded for all four qualifying ties. The first three of these will be played as one-game knock-outs behind closed doors as a consequence of the pandemic lockdown.
The format makes the club’s attempt to reach the blue riband tournament missed out on the past two seasons all the more precarious. As a result, Lennon is hoping to avoid any complications that could follow from travelling in this coronavirus age, despite the club’s impressive form on the road in continental competition last season – the dead rubber Europa League group loss in Cluj their only defeat in eight encounters abroad.
The 48-year-old marvels at how far Scotland has travelled as a European football competitor – principally thanks to Celtic and Rangers’ exploits in progressing from their Europa League groups last seasons – to push up the rankings.
“It’s fantastic that Scotland will have two Champions League places from next season. It’s great news that the champions – hopefully us – will play fewer qualifying rounds,” said Lennon, who guided the club to a first European group pole finish last winter. “It’s been a long time waiting and a much-needed boost for the country and testament to how well the teams have done in Europe as of late.”
Lennon is determined to bolster the co-efficient further courtesy of his team’s progress in the Champions League qualifiers this year. The later start he hopes will assist on that front, and so too the fact that Celtic have been masterful in negotiating one-off ties on the domestic scene in racking up 34 straight such successes during their run of 11 straight Scottish honours. Moreover, he would be content were Uefa loosely to regionalise the earlier rounds, as has been suggested. That could put Welsh team Connah’s Quay Nomads in the frame to be first-round possibles. Meanwhile, such as KR Reykjavik – beaten by Celtic in the qualifiers six years ago – Faroes side Ki or Finnish club KuPS are also potential opponents that would not require arduous trekking were the Scottish champions drawn away.
Lennon is looking to clasp on to any possible pluses for the Champions League campaign – including the later start for ties normally scheduled for early July, before the domestic campaign has kicked-off.
“We’ve had a longer pre-season, although obviously not as many games as we’d normally have had leading into the season, and made a great start domestically,” he said. “With them being one-legged ties the more home ties we can get, the better. With the way things are you don’t know what you’re going into in some other countries but at least if you get a home tie there’s a familiarity with protocols and the environment.
“Ideally, we’d want a home tie but it’s one leg and we have to get it right on the night whether it’s home or away. The fact there’s no crowd negates home advantage a bit but we don’t know who the opposition will be and whether they’ll play on a plastic pitch or what the stadium will be like so it’s about keeping an open mind and being best prepared. We’ve got to try and get everything spot on and, if we’re away, getting the travel preparations right and protocols with Covid side of things.
“Our domestic cup run is a positive we can take and I go back to the Europa League run last season which was excellent. There are great rewards at the end, so we have to draw on any positive experience over the last 18 months, including our domestic cup run and Europa League group campaign.”
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