CELTIC boss Ronny Deila admits tomorrow night’s rivals Qarabag are a step up from previous opponents, Stjarnan, so there is real need to take a healthy advantage on their travels for next week’s second leg.
But Daryl Willard, the sporting director of the Azerbaijan FA, has warned the Hoops they face a very difficult hurdle.
He said: “Qarabag are an incredibly dangerous team in Europe and when Celtic go over there it’s going to be very hostile.
“Qarabag are good technically and they play a possession-based game. Domestically, they enjoy playing on the front foot and pressurising opponents, whereas in Europe they concentrate a bit more on counter-attacking.
“I would expect them to hit Celtic hard in the first 15 minutes, particularly with the threat of Reynaldo.
“He is their young Brazilian star and is absolutely brilliant in one-off situations. I was at their Champions League qualifier game against Salzburg last year when they won, and they will be motivated. They have another Brazilian, Richard] Almeida, in midfield, and he has quality.“Reynaldo scored the goal of his life that night with Qarabag winning 2-1. They went out of the tie narrowly on aggregate, but they really should have gone through later on in their Europa League group when they had a clear goal against Inter Milan disallowed.“In my opinion, I wouldn’t say Celtic are strong favourites. They must be ready for Reynaldo because he can hurt them.
“It will be very intimidating for Celtic. Qarabag will be confident because money has disappeared from Scottish football and the standard of players isn’t what it was, although I think that has helped the Scotland team in terms of developing younger players.”
Gurban Gurbanov’s side are becoming more streetwise, according to Willard, who spent his early coaching career at the Chelsea academy when Brendan Rodgers was assisting Jose Mourinho.
He added: “Going out to Salzburg was a big disappointment, but it brought belief.
“They aren’t far away from becoming the first club from Azerbaijan to reach the Champions League group stages. They will be physically and mentally ready.“The Qarabag manager, Gurban Gurbanov, is very intelligent and has developed a Barcelona-like style of possession football. He is responsible for taking this team to another level.“Perhaps a few years ago, you had players coming to Azerbaijan for a bit of early retirement, but that has changed with more quality and younger players arriving.
“Qarabag will have a lot of support against Celtic. Everybody loves them, because they are from the war-torn area of the country and had to relocate to Baku due to the ongoing unrest with Armenia.
“The game will be in the national stadium and, interestingly, it is named after Tofiq Bahramov, otherwise known as the ‘Russian linesman’ in the 1966 World Cup Final as he was acknowledged as the first Azeri who went to the top of sport.“There will be an incredible atmosphere, and with the huge Scottish expatriate population working in the oil and gas industry, it’ll be the first time I’ll have seen away fans here in numbers.”
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