Celtic face a long journey to the former Soviet state protecting a one-goal lead in the second leg on Wednesday. But there are doubts whether Azerbaijan’s national ground – the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium, where Qarabag will play the game – is fit to host the tie.
Media in Baku report that more than 30 per cent of the surface is unplayable. Some other sections are uneven and the company that maintains it has admitted there is no chance of the pitch recovering in time for Celtic’s visit. The problems have been caused by a spell of extreme hot weather.
Qarabag have looked at moving the game to Baku’s Bakcell Arena stadium, but cannot because fellow Azerbaijani club Qabala play a Europa League tie there the following night against Apollon Limassol and Uefa insist clubs must train in the same stadium 24 hours before the match.
Added to Qarabag’s dilemma is the fact they started to sell their 30,000 tickets for the game yesterday and would face a logistical nightmare trying to move the tie.
A Celtic spokesman said last night: “We are aware of the issue as regards the pitch in Baku. At the moment, we are seeking reassurances over the quality of the surface.”
Uefa have regulations in place for the cancellation of matches both before the visiting teams depart or if it is called off when they are in the country. Their Article 11.01 states: “If the home club finds that a match cannot take place, for example because the field is not fit for play, the home club must notify the visiting club and the referee before their departure from home and the Uefa administration at the same time. In this case, the match must be played at another venue and/or on another date as decided by the Uefa administration after consultation with the home club (for the venue) and with both clubs (for the date).”
If Uefa’s refereeing team wait until Celtic arrive in Azerbaijan and then call it off, Uefa state: “If any doubt arises as to the condition of the field of play after the visiting club’s departure from home, the referee decides on the spot whether or not it is fit for play. If the referee decides that the match cannot commence, for example because the field is unfit for play, the match must be played either the next day, or on a reserve date or other date set by the Uefa administration.”
It’s not the first time Qarabag have had problems with their pitch. Last year, they had to call in an English turf company to sort it out ahead of a Europa League tie with St Etienne.
If the game goes ahead, Celtic manager Ronny Deila expects Leigh Griffiths and Nir Bitton to be fit. Griffiths was withdrawn through injury after 18 minutes of the 2-0 win over Ross County, while midfielder Bitton had been rested on the bench nursing an ankle injury.