A stern test for Celtic if they can defeat Lincoln Red Imps
The degree of difficulty in reaching the group stage of the Champions League was ratcheted up a notch for Celtic as they landed a potentially troublesome draw in the third qualifying round.
Assuming Brendan Rodgers’ team can overcome their mortifying 1-0 first leg deficit against Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar in the second qualifying round at Celtic Park next Wednesday, they will face either Lithuanian champions Zalgiris Vilnius or FC Astana of Kazakhstan in their next tie.
Astana, who became the first Kazakh club to qualify for the Champions League group stage last season, are favourites to progress after securing a 0-0 draw away to Zalgiris in midweek.
State-owned and significantly resourced, Astana have won the Kazakh Premier League for the last two years and are currently ten points clear at the top of the table midway through their current domestic season, which began in March.
They are a formidable force at their own Astana Arena in the Kazakh capital city. Despite finishing bottom of their Champions League group last season, they were unbeaten at home against Benfica, Galatasaray and eventual finalists Atletico Madrid.
The artificial playing surface at the stadium is familiar to Celtic, who played there in 2013 when they lost 2-0 to Shakhter Karagandy in the first leg of a Champions League play-off round tie which they salvaged with a 3-0 win back in Glasgow.
Colombian midfielder Roger Canas, who shone for Karagandy in that tie, now plays for Astana, as does Macedonian midfielder Agim Ibraimi, who helped Maribor eliminate Celtic from the Champions League two years ago.
A tie against Astana is also the more difficult option logistically for Celtic with a five-hour time difference, six-hour flight and 6000-mile round trip to contend with.
The Scottish champions would certainly not be disappointed if Zalgiris Vilnius upset the odds and were their opponents for the next hurdle instead.
They have little European pedigree of note, their only previous meeting with Scottish opposition coming 20 years ago when they lost 5-4 on aggregate to Aberdeen in the first round of the Uefa Cup.
Lithuanian champions for the last three seasons, Zalgiris are currently one point off the top of the table with a game in hand in a domestic campaign which also runs from March to October. They also play on an artificial surface at the 5000 capacity LFF Stadium in Vilnius.
There are no shortage of well-known faces in their ranks for followers of Scottish football.
Former Hearts captain and Rangers defender Marius Zaliukas now plays for Zalgiris, as do ex-Hearts pair Saulius Mikoliunas and Linas Pilibaitis, the latter best recalled for scoring the winning goal for Kaunas against Rangers in the Champions League qualifiers eight years ago.
Swedish-born Bosnian striker Bahrudin Atajic, who scored one goal in four appearances for Celtic before being released in 2014, is also in the Zalgiris line-up, while former Dunfermline defender Andrius Skerla is on the coaching staff.
Celtic are scheduled to be away from home in the first leg on 26 or 27 July with the return fixture the following week.
But before they can turn their attention to that, they must first repair the damage of last Tuesday’s defeat in Gibraltar which has inevitably led to them being subjected to a barrage of criticism.
“We’ve been feeling quite down about the performance, as were the fans,” reflected midfielder Stuart Armstrong, pictured, ahead of today’s friendly against Wolfsburg at Celtic Park.
“But it’s something we’ll learn from and we’re looking forward to putting it right.
“Naturally the fans will be upset about the result and the performance in Gibraltar.
“We’re not proud of it either. But it’s still early days and it was only the first leg. We’ve still got the return leg on Wednesday and we’re all looking forward to it.
“I don’t think you can just hide under the duvet after a result like that. You have to reflect on the game but not dwell on it too much. You need to focus and prepare for the next game.
“It obviously wasn’t the result the manager was looking for.
“But he told us just to be calm and to learn from it. He was pretty much the same in private as he was in public.
“His philosophy is that we are all together and pushing for the same thing. He wants us to be very much a team.
“Everyone here wants to get to the group stages. It’s a personal ambition of mine.
“It was torture missing out in the play-off round last season against Malmo and then seeing the group they ended up with. It was upsetting to have to watch and we don’t want to go through that again.
“We are confident we will go through against Lincoln Red Imps but we don’t expect anything. We won’t take anything for granted. All we have to do is win – no matter what.
“We will be raring to go from the very start on Wednesday night.”