It seems like the Champions League is still a long way away, but for Europe’s lesser lights the arduous qualifying campaign has already started. Teams from the less-established European leagues have to go through three qualifying rounds before reaching the play off round, where a final two-legged match will decide who takes their place in the group stage proper.
The likes of Manchester City, Porto, Villarreal and Roma will enter the competition at that last play off round stage, so it’s a tough task to get through all of the qualifiers and reach the group stage. Nonetheless, the dream is still on for a number of teams who will play their second qualifying round second legs during this week. There are fewer better-known sides than Celtic in this stage of the competition, but Brendan Rodgers new side are staring into the abyss after a dismal performance in Gibraltar last week. They trail 1-0 to part-timers Lincoln Red Imps after what was described as the worst result in the Glasgow club’s illustrious history.
Brendan Rodgers insisted there was “no embarrassment” in defeat in what was his first competitive game in charge, but he will be only too aware that the Celtic Park faithful will expect a resounding victory on Wednesday night to make up for last week’s result.
Celtic v Lincoln Red Imps
Previous Celtic manager Ronny Delia’s tenure was definitely undermined by Champions League defeats to Malmo, Maribor and Legia Warsaw, and with little competition in the Scottish League, Rodgers will be judged in his performance in European competition. This club has become accustomed to big European nights under the lights at Celtic Park against the likes of AC Milan and Barcelona, but it’s been a long time since Celtic mixed it with Europe’s best sides.
No doubt when Rodgers took the post in Glasgow he would have fancied a crack at the big time, but defeat over two legs in this tie doesn’t even bear thinking about. Indeed, the Scottish press have already given the manager, the players, and the club plenty of stick and this has become far more than an early-season qualifying game. The reputation of the club is at stake and Bhoys players will be left under no illusions about what is expected of them.
The bookmakers clearly don’t expect lightening to strike twice, with general quotes of -1667 being offered on a Celtic victory. Unless you’re a ‘money-buyer’ those odds are unlikely to appeal, but there are other ways to bet on a Celtic win. Bet365 for example are offering odds of -161 on Celtic beating a -2.5 Asian Handicap, while Coral offer -167 on Celtic to win by three or more goals.
That may tempt if you fancy the Bhoys to rack up a big score, but a more attractive wager is Celtic to win both halves at -149 with Paddy Power
Despite the 1-0 scoreline, the stats from last week’s game will tell you that Celtic enjoyed 71% possession with 13 attempts on target. Lincoln Red Imps notched an impressive 9 attempts on target, but they were always going to be more likely to attack in the home leg. With a lead to protect they will almost certainly be more reserved in this away leg, and are expected to be under the cosh for long periods. Celtic’s misfiring players will need to make amends for last week’s terrible showing, but they will start like a house on fire and it should be no great surprise if they break the deadlock before the half-time whistle. From there, fitness should tell as the second half wears on, and if the game goes to plan for the Bhoys, more goals should materialise late in the match.
Legia Warsaw v Zrinjski Mostar
These Champions League qualfiers throw up plenty of one-sided games, but there are two that stand out over the next couple of days. Polish side Legia Warsaw can be backed at -250 with Betfair, 888Sport and Ladbrokes to get the better of Bosnian side Zrinjski on Tuesday, after a 1-1 draw in the first leg.
The Poles were unfortunate to be disqualified from the competition at the third qualifying round stage two years ago. Ironically it was Celtic that they beat 6-1 on aggregate before being punished by UEFA for fielding an ineligible player for the last few minutes of the second leg. Celtic were awarded a 3-0 victory, but went on to lose the play off round to Maribor anyway.
Warsaw failed to qualify for the competition last year after finishing 2nd in the Polish league, but they won it again this year and started their qualification campaign with a 1-1 draw in Bosnia. They dominated possession, had more shots, and even took the lead against Zrinjski, only to be pegged back to a draw. Back on home soil, and with plenty of European experience as a club, Legia are strongly fancied to finish the job.
Dinamo Zagreb v Vardar
The first leg finished 2-1 to Zagreb last week, and although that advantage means they don’t need to win here, they will take no chances and should be simply too good for Vardar. Croatians Zagreb also have a good European pedigree, and they have been regulars in European competition over the years. They were two goals to the good within half an hour last week, and despite conceding a second half consolation, a similar outcome is expected on Wednesday.
Celtic to win both halves
Wednesday 20th July, 19:45 GMT
Legia Warsaw to beat Zrinjski Mostar
Tuesday 19th July, 19:45 GMT
Dinamo Zagreb to beat Vardar
Wednesday 20th July, 19:45 GMT
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