This week sees the final qualifying ties for the Champions League get underway, with Manchester City and Celtic both just two matches away from reaching the competition proper. It’s a familiar feeling for Celtic who have struggled to get through these qualifying games in recent years, but it’s unfamiliar territory for Manchester City who have become used to lining up in the group stages from the off.
Despite reaching the semi finals of the tournament last year, an insipid domestic display under former boss Manuel Pellegrini saw the Citizens scrape into fourth place in the Premier League. With Pep Guardiola at the helm and a host of new signings much more is expected this season, but there was little evidence of that in the last-gasp 2-1 win over Sunderland at the Etihad on Sunday evening. City face a tricky match away in Romania against Steaua Bucharest on Tuesday night, before the return leg back in Manchester next week.
Brendan Rodgers has done it the hard way with his new side so far this season, and his first competitive match was a forgettable one. The Hoops went down 1-0 away in Gibraltar to part-timers Lincoln Red Imps, but thankfully for the former Liverpool manager they came back at Celtic Park to win 3-1 on aggregate. After successfully seeing off FC Astana, a tie against Israeli side Hapoel Beer Sheva gives them a real chance of making into the group stages after a two year absence.
Steaua Bucharest v Manchester City
The Romanians are very strong on home soil, where they’ve lost just one competitive match in the last twenty. Of the nine matches they’ve played at home against English opposition, they’ve won 5, drawn 2 and lost 2. In this year’s qualifying campaign they beat Sparta Prague 2-0 at home after a 1-1 draw away, and City will not underestimate the task on Tuesday night.
Guardiola’s men have had an indifferent preseason where they failed to register a win in 90 minutes, and couldn’t keep a clean sheet. Those matches were against Bayern Munich, Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund however, so perhaps it’s understandable. Their first Premier League match at the weekend resulted in three points, but as so often last season they were rarely impressive. Sergio Aguero got them off the mark with a 4th minute penalty, but they struggled to break down an organised Sunderland side in a laboured display. Jermaine Defoe got the visitors level after 71 minutes, and City had to rely on an 87th Paddy McNair own goal to take the spoils.
Guardiola fielded a makeshift defence of Kolarov, Sagna, Clichy and new boy Stones, but he remains without the services of Kompany and Otamendi. He also opted to drop Joe Hart for Caballero, while Yaya Toure was left out of the squad altogether. Both may come back in for this game.
With the return leg at home next week the former Barcelona and Bayern boss will be confident of getting the job done, but it might not be straightforward taking a lead home with them. Steaua are capable of breaking through the City defence, and City have more than enough attacking prowess to grab away goals too.
Celtic v Hapoel Beer Sheva
Brendan Rodgers must have feared the worst after a terrible start to his career as Celtic manager when they lost in Gibraltar, but everything appears to be going his way ever since. A 1-1 draw away in Kazakhstan against FC Astana was followed by a 2-1 win back at Celtic Park to get them to this point, and the draw has been favourable. Domestically an injury-time winner gave them a 2-1 win away at Hearts, before they thumped Motherwell 5-0 in the Betfred Cup.
Hapoel won their third ever Israeli title last season, and it was their first since the 1975/76 campaign. This is their first appearance in the Champions League, and their first match against Scottish opposition. They shouldn’t be taken lightly after beating Greek side Olympiakos in the last round, but Celtic will surely fancy their chances of lining up in Europe’s elite competition once again.
The Hoops have played Israeli opposition four times in the past, winning three and losing one. They are also an incredibly strong home side and are unbeaten since December 2015 in front of their own fans. The chances are that they will batter Hapoel from the first whistle and the pressure should eventually tell, leading to a comfortable home win to take into next week’s second leg.
Steaua Bucharest v Manchester City – Both Teams to Score
Tuesday 16th August, 19:45 GMT
Celtic v Hapoel Beer Sheva
Wednesday 17th August, 19:45 GMT