Celtic v Qarabağ/Rudar Pljevlja in Champions League

Celtic lead Stjarnan 2-0 from the first leg. Picture: SNS
Celtic lead Stjarnan 2-0 from the first leg. Picture: SNS
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CELTIC could face a 7,000-mile round trip to Azerbaijan in their continued quest to reach the Champions League group stages.

Ronny Deila’s men were paired with either Baku-based Qarabag or Rudar Pljevlja of Montenegro should they maintain their second qualifying-round lead over Stjarnan.

The teams drew 0-0 in Azerbaijan this week but Qarabag still look likeliest opponents for Celtic given their superior European experience.

Qarabag, who play in front of passionate crowds of up to 31,000 in Azerbaijan’s national arena, the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium, reached the Europa League group stages last season and would have joined Celtic in the knockout stages but for an extremely poor decision by the match officials in their final game against Inter Milan.

An injury-time winner was inexplicably disallowed for offside as Inter escaped with a goalless draw before going on to knock Celtic out.

Qarabag had qualified for the group stages with an away-goals win over Twente of Holland, following several years of going out in the latter stages of qualifying for Europe’s two competitions.

They drew twice with St Etienne and beat Dnipro in Ukraine in the group stages, finishing in third place on six points.

Rudar, from a town of about 20,000 inhabitants, have never gone beyond the second qualifying round of a European competition and lost 6-2 against Slask Wroclaw of Poland in the Europa League last season, but came away from Baku this week without many scares.

Celtic manager Ronny Deila is looking no further than Reykjavik as his side bid to build on their 2-0 first leg lead over Stjarnan, which would have been more emphatic had former Motherwell goalkeeper Gunnar Nielsen not saved a late penalty by Leigh Griffiths.

Celtic were drawn out first for the penultimate round of qualifying, which takes place on 28-29 July and 4-5 August.

Deila, who has taken a strong squad to play Spanish Primera Liga side Eibar in a friendly today, told Celtic TV: “That’s the next round. Of course we have to get finished with this one and play a good game on Wednesday, and then we can talk about the other teams afterwards if we get a good result.”

Elsewhere, there could be a Celtic clash of a different kind if The New Saints and Dundalk both overturn first-leg deficits.

The Irish champions look to have a better chance of progressing after scoring an away goal in a 2-1 defeat by BATE Borisov in Belarus. The Welsh side were beaten 1-0 at home by Hungarian champions Videoton.

Northern Irish champions Crusaders were drawn against Bulgarian side Ludogorets or Moldovans Milsami – but they will have to overturn a 4-1 deficit in their return against Albania’s Skenderbeu. Milsami secured a 1-0 win in Bulgaria this week.

Monaco, Champions League quarter-finalists last season, have been paired with Young Boys.

Shakhtar Donetsk must also travel in the first leg to face Fenerbahce, who return to Uefa competitions after a two-year ban for match-fixing. Ajax are away first against Rapid Vienna, and CSKA Moscow host Sparta Prague.

Panathinaikos were drawn at home to Bruges, though could yet go directly to the group stage. Greek champions Olympiakos are implicated in an ongoing criminal match-fixing investigation and could be expelled.

Basel, the impressive Swiss side who reached the last 16 last season before losing to Porto, are away first against Lech Poznan or Sarajevo.

The winners from the third qualifying round advance to the play-off round, the final stage on the long journey to the lucrative group phase.


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