Technically, this remains our biggest game of the season, our Summer Cup Final. The match against Aberdeen at Hampden in May will live long in the memory, but qualification for Champions League football will have a more profound effect on Celtic than any other game this year or season.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t feel like that. For the third time in our history, we approach a play-off second leg relaxed, cautiously expecting to increase our aggregate advantage.
The only two occasions we didn’t anticipate a second leg of this round, with anything other than what could be described as a nervous disposition, was last year, when we brought a 5-2 lead to Israel, and our second-ever play-off round, in 2001, after we took a 1-3 win home from Amsterdam.
Ajax opened our eyes in 2001. They were a far better team than their inept performance at home suggested. The 0-1 victory at Celtic Park was the least they deserved. Hapoel Be’re Sheva came within a goal of knocking us out 12 months ago. Craig Gordon’s penalty save was of enormous importance.
Analysis of our 5-0 win over Astana six days ago is difficult. Brendan Rodgers was a tad prickly when a Kazakh journalist asked if the gap between the sides was less than the score-line suggests. The remarkable stat: five goals, but three attempts on target, suggests it is. Despite creating two good chances early on, Celtic struggled to impose themselves before the opening goal on 32 minutes.
Astana are better than any other Scottish club. They pressed high with confidence, however, Celtic were good enough to pass through them. In addition, we exploited the weakest goalkeeper we’ve seen in some years.
This afternoon, playing on their own artificial surface, with body clocks adjusted to the norm, they should be able to put on the kind of performance we saw from them last year. We will make the next round with ease, but I’m sure chat like this will be limited to blogs, and kept well away from the dressing room.
After we are comfortably into the group stage, keep an eye on Rijeka’s game against Olympiakos, which kicks off at 19:45. The tiny Croatian club stopped Dinamo Zagreb’s run of 11-in-a-row to take their first title last season. If they eliminate Olympiakos, Celtic would move up to Pot 3 in the group stage.
I watched the first leg. Rijeka were excellent in a hostile environment, succumbing to a 2-1 defeat in the 93rd minute, when they were down to 10 men. They eliminated Salzburg to reach this stage, so they know how to compete against better-resourced opponents.
Celtic sponsor, Intelligent Car Leasing, have offered four full hospitality tickets for Saturday’s game against St Johnstone. You and three friends could benefit from a stunning pre-match meal in the Walfrid, halftime refreshments, as well as a complimentary bar before and after the game.
You will also watch the game from the Directors’ Box. In collaboration with this raffle, we are raising money for Mary’s Meals. Over 3,000 children in Malawi and Liberia eat each school day in a kitchen supported by Celtic Quick News readers. You can donate a minimum of £5 here.
To win, email your MyDonate confirmation to me, firstname.lastname@example.org with the answer to this question IN THE SUBJECT LINE:
How many Champions League qualifying games have Celtic previously played in the Astana Arena?
Other emails with the correct answer will also be considered. Competition closes at 14:00 Thursday afternoon. You need to be able to collect your tickets in Glasgow on Friday. Please ensure you leave reliable contact information on your email. Good luck!
I was in the Walfrid on Wednesday for the first time since the day we lost to 10- man Motherwell in April 2008 – I’m sure you remember it. I’m very sure you remember the fight-back which followed. The Walfrid was a fantastic experience, you’ll love it. This is worth entering; you, three pals, Celtic. Fill your boots!
NEW CQN PODCAST – PAUL DYKES PRESENTS WITH FORMER CELTIC CAPTAIN ANDY LYNCH AND SPECIAL GUEST PAT STANTON