As we draw closer to the new European football season, the Champions League qualifiers are nearing the business end. After the third qualifying round is completed this week there will be just the play off round for sides to navigate as they attempt to qualify for the group stages.
One such side is Celtic, who are looking to bring back the glory days of top level football under new boss Brendan Rodgers. They faced an incredibly tough encounter last week away in Kazakhstan, in humid temperatures on a plastic pitch, but they came through that test unscathed. It’s true that they were second best for large periods after falling behind to an early Astana goal, but they defended resolutely and Leigh Griffiths excellent finish earned an unlikely 1-1 draw. That away goal could prove to be precious as they bring the Kazakhstan side back to Celtic Park, and their famous support is expected to be in full voice as the Hoops try to progress to the final qualification stage.
There are a raft of difficult ties to call on Wednesday evening, but two strong teams that stand out are FC Copenhagen and Legia Warsaw, as they host inferior opposition on home soil.
Celtic v FC Astana
We’ll start with Rodgers’ new side though, and Coral stand out at -149 on a Celtic victory.
The former Liverpool boss endured the worst possible start to his tenure earlier this month when Celtic were humiliated away in Gibralatar, in a 1-0 defeat to Lincoln Red Imps. However, the return leg was never in doubt as the Hoops raced into a 3-0 half-time lead and never looked back. The draw against Astana looked tough on paper as this was a side that qualified for last year’s group stage, and held the likes of Atletico Madrid, Benfica and Galatasaray to draws.
The match played out as most pundits suspected, with Astana piling the pressure on from the first whistle, and Celtic were hindered by having to field a makeshift defence. Rodgers has had to deal with injuries to several defenders in his brief Celtic career, and put out a three-man backline consisting of Ambrose, Lustig and young defender O’Connell, who made his European debut. Having conceded in the 19th minute, there were further scares at the back as Astana ramped up the pressure in search of a second goal. However, it failed to materialise and when Roberts found Griffiths insode the box, the prolific striker swept in the equaliser on 78 minutes to secure a vital draw and away goal.
It may not have been fully deserved, but Celtic will care little, and back in front of their own fans at Celtic Park it will be a different story. New signing Kolo Toure has been registered by the club to be eligible to play in this second leg, and it would be no surprise to see him pushed straight into the first eleven. His composure at the back will be much-needed, and should give the attacking players a platform from which to impose themselves.
FC Copenhagen v Astra Giurgiu
The Danish side had to come from a goal behind away in Romania to earn a 1-1 draw with Astra Giurgiu, but the match stats point to a gulf in class. Copenhagen had more possession, more shots on target, and more shots off target.
Copenhagen haven’t reached the group stages of the Champions League since the 2013/14 season, when the highlights were a draw with Juventus and a 1-0 win over Galatasaray. A 9-0 win over Crusaders in the previous round suggests they mean business though, and they are good enough to claim a home victory here and progress to the play off round. They warmed up for this with a 4-0 rout of Nordsjaelland in the Danish league over the weekend, and overall have notched 18 goals in their last five games.
Astra, meanwhile, are competing in the Champions League for the first time, but this looks like a step too far for the Romanians. They drew 0-0 in the league with Pandurii over the weekend, and have only managed two wins in their last eight games (drawn 4, lost 2).
Legia Warsaw v AS Trencin
Legia Warsaw gave us a nice victory on the double chance last week as they beat Trencin 1-0 on the road, and a home win is worth a bet at -125 with BetVictor
The Poles are a quality side at this sort of level, and they have a bone to pick with UEFA after their disqualification two years ago after fielding an ineligible player against Celtic in the qualifiers. They are an away goal to the good in the tie, but aren’t expected to rest on their laurels. It’s three wins and two draws in the last five games, while Trencin are now on a run of four defeats in the last five.
Although the Slovakian side had more possession and shot during that first leg, they were unable to break Warsaw down – as we predicted – and it won’t be any easier on their travels in Poland.
Celtic to beat FC Astana
Wednesday 3rd August, 19:45 GMT
FC Copenhagen to beat Astra Giurgiu
Wednesday 3rd August, 18:45 GMT
Legia Warsaw to beat AS Trencin
Wednesday 3rd August, 19:45 GMT