A TOUGH tie is what Stefan Johansen expects both literally and metaphorically when Celtic host Qarabag in their Champions League qualifier on Wednesday evening. The Norwegian international has experience of football, Azerbaijan style, having featured in his country’s European Championship win in the Asia territory in November last year.
“They played with fight, they played hard. It’s never easy there. It’s going to be physical but I believe we have a good chance to get a good result,” he said. “They have a few Brazilians they can bring and a Spanish guy but it’s difficult to say if they will be different from the national team because I haven’t seen enough of them yet. The national team played very physically and it was a tough game for us, but I think we can get a good result.
“They played tough, but they weren’t over-physical. They tried to play football as well but they give you nothing – so it’s gonna be tough for us. We are kind of the same as well – we want to win the ball back all the time – so I think it’s going to be a challenge.”
A 30 degree heat will face Celtic in Baku a week on Wednesday, conditions entirely different from those experienced in the country’s capital last winter. “It was a bit cold when we were there and they just painted the grass green. If you fell down, you were all green,” he said.
Johansen knows the importance of painting the Glasgow opening leg of the third round qualifier green and white in three days’ time. “Home is where we need to build the result. Like we had 2-0 to go away with last week [against Icelandic side Stjarnan], then you always know if you get the away goal then it’s more or less secure.
“So it’s very important we do the job at home and we need to use the next couple of days to prepare as well as we can. It can be easier with the away game first because of the away goals rule, but it’s not a big deal. We just need to play the way we can and I’m confident.”
Johansen recognises that, with the recruitment of Nadir Ciftci, Celtic have a player who can throw his weight about while spearheading their side too. “For me personally, when I came to Scotland I had to put some more strength in my game because it’s more physical here than in Norway,” he said “You need to adapt to the game but, of course, Nadir is a very good player as well – I remember playing him in Dundee last year and he was great against us. It’s good to bring in quality and a lot of new players have come in and made us better.”
Good enough, in fact, for the 24-year-old to make good on an ambition he has held since probably his first footballing memories involved watching the then pride of his country, Rosenborg, competing in the Champions League group stages. The club did so 11 times in the 13 years between 1995 to 2007.
“It would mean a lot to me to play in the group stages. That’s where you want to be as a football player. It’s the best tournament in the world. When I watched Rosenborg as a young kid I was always thinking that’s where I wanted to be and now we really have the chance to get there, so we need to do everything we can.”