There are “best avoided” scenarios in the European draws on Tuesday which knock into a cocked hat last year’s Champions League qualifying meeting between Celtic and Linfield.
Scottish clubs will learn their opponents for what they hope will be the first two qualifying rounds and again, the opening leg of the these first rounds will be played in the “marching season” in Belfast. A year ago, it was decreed too much of a security risk for Celtic to face Linfield, with their firmly unionist support, on 12 July and the game was eventually played at the highly unusual time of early Friday evening that week.
There could be a double dose of such a headache in Tuesday’s draw. Nationalist-leaning Cliftonville in North Belfast are one of the non-seeded teams Rangers could draw in the Europa League first qualifying round. There is therefore the potential for the Ibrox club to be facing a trip to Belfast for a game on 12 July. One of Celtic’s possible opponents for their Champions League first-round qualifier is Belfast’s Crusaders, whose derby against Cliftonville five years ago was cancelled because of skirmishes with police following a Loyalist flag protest by a band of Crusaders fans.
Celtic could therefore be drawn to play in Belfast for their first leg on 11 or 12 July. It is safe to say if Celtic and Rangers were given trips to Belfast two days apart to play what might be generously termed, “culturally-sensitive” encounters, there would be much rearranging.
Steven Gerrard will be hoping for no unwanted distractions for what will be the hugely anticipated first competitive game of his Rangers tenure. With the regionalism of these early draws having apparently been loosened, the football should take priority over any political concerns for the stellar figure of English football owing to there being 46 potential opponents aside from Cliftonville – a club who could also provide Neil Lennon’s Hibernian with a Belfast jaunt, which might stir memories of the sectarian death threats to then Celtic midfielder Lennon that caused him to end his Northern Ireland international career in 2002.
The island of Ireland offers up five possible opponents for Gerrard’s Rangers or the Easter Road side. Former Kilmarnock manager Kenny Shiels’ side Derry City, Shamrock Rovers, Glenavon and Coleraine are all in the draw. The Scottish pair could also be pitted against a certain Luxembourg side by the name of Progres Niederkorn…which will still send shivers down the spines of the Ibrox legions after the part-timers torpedoed Pedro Caixinha’s feckless Rangers at the first-round stage last year.
There are plenty of arduous, long trips that Rangers and Hibs would want to avoid. Chief among these are the ones that would pit them against Kazakhstan top-flight runners-up Karat, or Armenian pair Banants or Pyuniks, both based in the capital Yerevan.
Celtic, who will be seeded throughout if they can stay the course for four qualifying rounds that will necessitate them playing eight consecutive midweeks, also have one of these long-haul options in the form of fellow Armenians Alashkert.
The most testing Champions League first qualifying round opponents for Brendan Rodgers’ men – and the one with the highest coefficient – would be Macedonian champions FK Sutjeska Nikšić. Faroes side Vikingur are an intriguing possible opponent for Celtic in that they are managed by former Rangers defender Maurice Ross.
Negotiating the first round – with the ties scheduled for 11/12 July and 18/19 July – would see the degree of difficulty ramped up for the second-round games to be played on 26/27 July and 31 July/1 August.
Recently departed Celtic defender Erik Sviatchenko’s Danish homeland side FC Midtjylland, storied European name Red Star Belgrade of Serbia, and recent Champions League qualifier foes in Israel’s Hapoel Beer-Sheva and Swedes Rosenborg would all be testing.
Aberdeen, as Scottish Premiership runners-up, enter the Europa League qualifiers at the second-round stage, where they will be unseeded. That means their participation could be brief if they land big-spending Turks Besiktas, Sporting Braga of Portugal, Germans RB Leipzig or Spanish side Sevilla. Seeded teams Atalanta of Italy, AZ Alkmaar of Holland and English Premier League side Burnley also lie in wait. If Rangers and Hibs emerge from the first round, those two will also have the possibility of landing those formidable opponents.