Celtic will begin their most challenging quest yet for the holy grail of Champions League group stage football in the historical shadow of Mount Ararat after being handed a 5,000-mile round trip to Yerevan in the first qualifying round.
Brendan Rodgers’ squad will travel to the Armenian capital for the first leg of their tie against Alashkert on 11 July, with the return fixture taking place at Celtic Park on 18 July.
The Yerevan skyline is dominated by the famous mountain which biblical lore cites as the final resting place of Noah’s Ark. For Celtic, it presents a potentially hazardous environment as they look to ensure their Champions League ambitions are not grounded at the first port of call.
It is the first of four two-legged ties the Scottish champions will have to negotiate in Uefa’s revamped and extended qualifying system if they are to book a lucrative place among the elite of European club football in the group phase for a third successive year under Rodgers.
Yesterday’s convoluted draw process in Nyon also laid out Celtic’s potential opponents in the second qualifying round in which they would face either Norwegian champions Rosenborg, whom they eliminated in the third qualifying round last year, or Valur Reykjavik of Iceland.
Should Celtic lose to Alashkert, they would drop instead into the “champions path” of the second qualifying round of the Europa League and play the losers of the Champions League tie between their old foes from Kazakhstan, Astana, and Montenegrin champions Sutjeska Niksic.
But Celtic will initially look no further forward than the threat posed by Alashkert, champions of Armenia for the last three years and hugely ambitious under their wealthy owner Bagrat Nayovan. The travel industry mogul reformed the club, previously dissolved, in 2011 and two years later relocated them from their original home of Martuni in eastern Armenia to Yerevan.
They have flourished under his patronage, becoming the dominant domestic force in Armenia. They made their European debut three years ago, beating St Johnstone on away goals in the first qualifying round of the Europa League. They have yet to progress any further than the second qualifying round in either European club competition but were competitive in losing 4-2 on aggregate to Champions League regulars Bate Borisov at that stage last year. It is certainly a tougher first hurdle than Celtic have faced in the previous two seasons under Rodgers when they defeated Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar and Linfield of Northern Ireland.
“It’s a difficult trip,” agreed Rodgers’ assistant Chris Davies.
“The thing for us is that we’ve been through this before as a staff and a group of players, so we know it’s a real challenge to qualify for the Champions League. We are under no illusions at all.
“We travel there first and have them at home in the second leg, which is a positive. The simplicity of it for us is that if we play to our level, we play in our normal way and normal intensity, then we will beat them.
“But we won’t be underestimating them at all. There will be no complacency there whatsoever because, as we’ve seen before, these teams can be tricky to play against.”
Another factor for Celtic to contend with will be the conditions at the 14,400-capacity Republican Stadium in Yerevan where the first leg will be played, with Alashkert last night confirming it would be switched from their own smaller ground in the city. While the natural grass playing surface will be welcomed, temperatures are likely to be in excess of 30 degrees when Celtic play there.
“You have to bear that in mind, there will be the heat there,” Davies told Celtic TV. “Sometimes you can adapt slightly on the tactical side how you approach certain phases of the game when it is so hot. But we are training pre-season now in warmer weather and we are going to Austria [next week] which will be warmer weather as well, so that will help us prepare for that.”
If Celtic progress, they will expect to be facing familiar and recent opponents Rosenborg in the next round. The teams faced off in a tight and tense third qualifying round tie last year, James Forrest scoring the only goal in the second leg in Norway after a goalless draw at Celtic Park.
Still managed by former Manchester City midfielder Kare Ingebrigtsen, Rosenborg are currently third in their ongoing domestic league after 13 matches.
They face Valerenga, managed by former Celtic boss Ronny Deila, in their next game on Sunday.
“The positives I’ll take from the potential game against Rosenborg is that we’ve beaten them before in probably the hardest way, because we had to play them away in the second leg,” added Davies. “I don’t think their style or their players are going to have changed too much. We know quite a lot about them, so they are positives.
“But from our point of view it’s all about Alashkert. That’s been our mentality and approach ever since we’ve been here. They are the team we will be thinking about.
“Obviously our scouts will do their work on Rosenborg in preparation for that being an eventuality but it’s all about the first game, being at our best level for it and getting through that round.”