CELTIC are only three hours away from a £20million-plus Champions League windfall as they prepare to take on Hapoel Be’er Sheva at Parkhead tomorrow night.
The Hoops, under Ronny Deila failed at the same hurdle in the two previous disastrous European campaigns.
In the Norwegian’s debut season in the Parkhead dug-out, an 84th-minute goal from Callum McGregor gave them a 1-0 advantage from the first qualifying tie against KR Reykjavik in Iceland on July 15, 2014.
A week later, the Glasgow giants eased to a 4-0 triumph at Murrayfield while the pitch at Celtic Park was being relaid following its use in the Commonwealth Games. Virgil van Dijk (2) and Teemu Pukki (2) were the marksmen.
Disaster struck in Poland eight days later when McGregor gave the visitors the lead, but Legia Warsaw came roaring back to win 4-1 while Efe Ambrose was sent off in the first-half. The Poles also missed TWO penalty-kicks.
Celtic thought their European dream was in tatters in the second leg, again in Edinburgh, when Legia Warsaw, managed by former Rangers defender Henning Berg, triumphed 2-0. However, the Poles were found guilty of playing a suspended player who came on with only a couple of minutes to play. UEFA awarded Celtic a 3-0 win which took them through on away goals.
McGregor was the marksman again as Deila’s side drew 1-1 against the Slovenians of Maribor away from home and the odds were on the Scottish champions staking a place in the group stages.
Alarmingly, some disastrous defending late in the game at Parkhead presented the visitors with the only goal and the Hoops crashed out of Europe’s top-flight tournament.
Last season, Deila’s side were dumped again at the same stage by Malmo when they looked odds-on to progress.
They outclassed FC Stjarnan in the first round qualifier 6-1 on aggregate, winning 2-0 in Glasgow with efforts from Dedryck Boyata and Stefan Johansen and could even afford to miss a penalty-kick from Leigh Griffiths.
Griffiths had better luck in Iceland when he got on the scoresheet along with Johansen, Nir Bitton and Charlie Mulgrew in a 4-1 success.
It took a late header from Boyata to give Celtic a 1-0 first leg lead to take to Azerbaijan against FK Qarabag. A solid display saw Craig Gordon keep a clean sheet in a goalless draw.
Two goals inside 10 minutes from Griffiths and Bitton appeared to set the Scots on their way to an unassailable lead over Malmo in Glasgow. But Jo inge Berget, who had been a loan flop from Cardiff City at Parkhead, pulled one back before Griffiths nodded in a third. Berget made the final score 3-2 with the last kick of the ball.
Celtic’s chronic weakness at attempting to deal with corner-kicks haunted them in Sweden where they nosedived to a 2-0 defeat.
Deila long term fate was sealed and he was replaced at the end of the domestic season by Brendan Rodgers, but, remarkably, he suffered a humiliating 1-0 defeat against the semi-professionals of Lincoln Red Imps in Gibraltar.
The Irishman refused to accept it had been an “embarrassing” loss and promised to set the record straight in Glasgow eight days later. Three goals in six minutes from Mikael Lustig, Griffiths and Patrick Roberts saw the home side stroll to a 3-0 win in front of a crowd of 55,632.
In the second qualifier, a later leveller from Griffiths gave Rodgers’ team a 1-1 draw against Astana in Kazakhstan. Griffiths banged in a penalty-kick to give Celtic a 1-0 half-time advantage, but the visitors equalised just after the hour mark with their only shot on target. Moussa Dembele scored his first goal for the club with a stoppage-time spot-kick for a 3-2 aggregate triumph.
Now Rodgers and Co step onto the Champions League tightrope again tomorrow evening.
And hopefully we’ll defend corners like our lives depend on it.