Brendan Rodgers: AEK Athens clash ‘biggest qualifying challenge’ at Celtic

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Brendan Rodgers acknowledged Celtic will face their biggest Champions League qualifying challenge in his time as manager against AEK Athens tonight.

The Northern Irishman guided the Scottish champions into the lucrative group stages of the competition in his first two years in the Parkhead hotseat.

Moussa Dembele will not be risked from the start but is likely to play a part against AEK Athens. Picture: SNS.

Moussa Dembele will not be risked from the start but is likely to play a part against AEK Athens. Picture: SNS.

However, chances of a third 
success are in peril following the 1-1 draw with the Greek outfit in the first leg of the third qualifier in Glasgow last Wednesday night.

Rodgers, pictured, who confirmed fit-again striker Moussa Dembele will start on the bench in Athens, said: “We have had a few of those [big challenges] but no doubt this is arguably at this stage the biggest challenge.

“But it is something we relish, something that we have always done.

“We have had a number of these big games. We want to show our true face in terms of the quality we can play but also the mentality and we look forward to showing that 
tomorrow.

“Qualification in this competition is obviously very important for us.

“We have done that in the last couple of seasons and the main reason, from a football perspective, is to compete at the highest level of the game. The Champions League is that in European football.

“We have enjoyed our experiences in it and we want that to continue. There is always the threat we may not qualify but we can’t really think of that.

“We are not planning on going out, we are planning on playing well enough to get a result.

“We played well enough last week and got punished for one mistake so we have to learn from that and this group has shown in the last couple of years that they can come through that. We are excited about it.”

Dembele has been out since picking up another hamstring injury in the 3-0 home win over Alashkert in the first qualifying round. Rodgers, without suspended defender Kristoffer Ajer, will not risk starting the French striker.

He said: “It’s a big boost for us. He started the season fantastically 
well and was unfortunate he got his injury. But he has worked very hard to come back and will take his place in the squad.

“It is probably too much to start. He will take his place on the bench.

“He has looked very fit and strong and the beauty with Moussa, he wants to play, he wants to be involved.

“It is too much of a risk to start but I am sure at some point in the game he will play a part.”

Despite AEK having the away goal, Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths remains confident that Celtic can get through to the play-off to face either Malmo of Sweden or MOL Vidi FC 
of Hungary.

He said: “You could say they have the advantage, especially with the away goal but we, as a team, are more than capable of scoring an away goal ourselves.

“Last week we proved that, even under the circumstances with the game at 1-1, we were still pushing for the second goal.

“Given the quality of the squad we have, we are more than capable of scoring goals.”

l BT Sport has confirmed it will screen live coverage of Celtic’s Champions League third qualifying round second leg tie with AEK Athens in Greece. Darrell Currie will be joined by former Parkhead duo John Hartson and Stiliyan Petrov. Chris Sutton and Rory Hamilton are on commentary duties, while Eilidh Barbour will provide additional content and reporting.