Ambitious Alashkert aim to make things awkward for Celtic

Alashkert celebrate a Europa League qualifier win over St Johnstone in 2015. Picture: SNS
Alashkert celebrate a Europa League qualifier win over St Johnstone in 2015. Picture: SNS
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On the only previous occasion a team bearing the name of Celtic played a European Cup tie in Yerevan, they were outclassed in a 5-0 defeat which sent them tumbling out of the tournament.

It is reasonably safe to believe the same fate will not befall Brendan Rodgers and his players in the Armenian capital on Tuesday, albeit they face a potentially awkward opening Champions League hurdle against ambitious opponents in the shape of Alashkert.

The high water mark of Armenian club football came in 1974-75, while the western Asian country was still subsumed by the Soviet Union. The establishment clubs from Moscow and Kiev were stunned by the Ararat Yerevan side which won the domestic league and cup double and proceeded to reach the quarter-finals of the European Cup in ’75, losing just 2-1 on aggregate to eventual winners Bayern Munich in the last eight.

En route, they crushed Cork Celtic 5-0 in Yerevan to complete a 7-1 aggregate win over the now defunct Irish club who at the time boasted former Chelsea striker and all-time record goalscorer Bobby Tambling in their ranks.

Since Armenia gained its independence and was granted UEFA membership in 1993, no team has ever come close to repeating that level of progress in European club competition.

Ararat Yerevan, who also reached the last 16 of both the UEFA Cup and Cup-Winners’ Cup during those heady days of the 1970s, are now a mid-table outfit in an Armenian Premier League where the struggle to attract interest among fans sees many clubs grant free admission to their matches.

Alashkert, the team standing between Celtic and passage to the second qualifying round of the Champions League, are the new standard bearers for Armenian football.

Domestic title winners for the past three seasons, they crave credibility and progress on the European stage under the ownership and patronage of travel industry mogul Bagrat Navoyan.

The club were originally formed in Navoyan’s home city of Martuni, 80 miles west of Yerevan on the banks of popular tourist spot Lake Sevan, in 1990 but were dissolved in 2000. Navoyan revived the club in 2011, then two years later relocated them in Yerevan where he purchased their current home, the Nairi Stadium. It remains unsuitable for European matches, which is why Celtic will line up instead at the 14,000-capacity Republican Stadium in what are predicted to be sweltering conditions on Tuesday evening.

Navoyan’s long-term aim is to return Alashkert to a new stadium in Martuni but the 59-year-old businessman’s primary investment is in strengthening a playing squad now under the guidance of former Armenian national team boss Varuzhan Sukiasyan.

The 61-year-old, who forged his reputation as the country’s premier coach by leading unfashionable Tsement Ararat to a domestic double in 1998, was in charge of Armenia when they drew with Wales both home and away in qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup.

But Sukiasyan was forced to step down from his second spell in charge of his country in October 2016 after they lost their opening three 2018 World Cup qualifying matches.

Alashkert prepared for the tie against Celtic with a week-long training camp in Minsk where they played three friendly matches against Russian sides which were watched by John McGlynn, the former Hearts manager who is now a scout for the Scottish champions.

He saw a team with a strong Serbian influence in the shape of defenders Mladen Zeljkovic and Danijel Stojkovic and striker Uros Nenadovic. Their number have been bolstered in the summer by the addition of another Serb, midfielder Danilo Sekulic.

Alashkert’s most influential player remains their captain and top scorer in the domestic league last season, Armenian international striker Artak Yedigaryan.

They suffered a setback last week with the loss of Croatian defender Dino Skvorc, who came close to joining Celtic back in 2010, when he moved to Hungarian side Honved. But Sukiasyan is confident his team will be highly competitive against Celtic and are capable of taking a lead with them to the second leg in Glasgow on 18 July.

“We have to try to take the initiative and try to impose our game on Celtic,” said the Alashkert boss. “We respect them, we know they are one of the strongest rivals we could face at this stage of the Champions League.

“But we do not fear them. We also have experienced players in our team, international players. Our preparations have been good and we want to do our best to make our supporters happy.”

Since Armenia joined the UEFA ranks, none of their clubs have gone further than the second qualifying round of either the Champions League or Europa League. But Alashkert have shown evidence they have the potential to break through that barrier.

This is their fourth European campaign, having made their debut when they defeated St Johnstone on away goals in the first qualifying round of the Europa League in 2015 before losing 4-2 to Kairat Almaty of Kazakhstan in their next tie.

Alashkert subsequently reached the second qualifying round of the Champions League in both 2016 and 2017, proving competitive in losing 3-1 and then 4-2 on aggregate respectively to Dinamo Tbilisi of Georgia and group stage regulars BATE Borisov of Belarus.

The 5,000-mile round trip to Yerevan is certainly not the assignment Celtic would have hand-picked as they look to negotiate the first of four qualifiers they will have to win in order to reach the group phase this year. From the very start, Rodgers and his men have to do it the hard way.