I thought it would be worth looking at our next Champions League qualification opponents from the Cluj-Maccabi Tel-Aviv tie. The Romanians won their home leg 1-0, leaving the outcome wide open.
With 3.5 coefficient points, Cluj look like a dangerous non-seed. They eliminated Astana, who have 27.5 points (Celtic have 31), in the first round and hold that slim advantage over Maccabi Tel-Aviv, who have 16 points, but there are signs in the detail that these results flatter.
Celtic twice faced strong Kazak opposition in recent years but not only did this Astana team lose to Cluj, they managed only a 0-0 draw in the Europa League qualifiers in Andorra this week. On the face of it, this result looks a bit like Celtic’s afternoon in Gibraltar three years ago, but unlike Celtic then, Astana 19 games into their season. It looks like the fizz has flowed out of Kazak football, to the benefit of Cluj.
Both Cluj and Maccabi Tel-Aviv were in close season over the summer, but their preparations could not have been more different. Before their game this mid-week, Cluj played five friendlies, a Super Cup game, two qualifiers against Astana and two domestic league games. Maccabi Tel-Aviv arrived in Romania having played only three friendlies and a Super Cup game since May.
After 10 games, the Cluj squad would have been near full fitness. After four, not many of the Maccabi squad will have played a complete 90 minute game. Cluj are ready, Maccabi are not.
Celtic will have played nine games, including our opening league encounter, by the third round. Not as many as Cluj, but we will be well up to speed. I remember taking a look at AEK Athens this time last year and getting an ominous feeling. The draw has been significantly kinder this time.