The Celtic players spared Brendan Rodgers blushes last week with a comfortable 3-0 win over Lincoln Red Imps, but their earlier away defeat to the minnows in Gibraltar didn’t inspire confidence. This Wednesday they face a much tougher assignment in Kazakhstan as they make the long and arduous journey to play last year’s group stage qualifiers, FC Astana.
In one of the most easterly parts of the continent, Astana play their home matches closer to Tokyo than Lisbon. It’s a 3000-mile long haul for Celtic, and when they arrive they’ll be faced with a plastic pitch, searing temperatures, and a side that held the likes of Atletico Madrid and Benfica to draws in last season’s Champions League.
This is the third qualifying round of the competition, and with just one more round to follow, this is the stage that some of the big guns start to enter the fray. Monaco and Fenerbache is arguably the tie of the round, while Sparta Prague, Anderlecht and Shakhtar Donestk begin their campaigns.
We’ve got three bets lined up for the next two days of qualifiers, but the only place to start is with the Scottish Champions and that tricky away match.
FC Astana v Celtic
Plenty of punters will be looking at that shock 1-0 defeat in Gibraltar as a reason to back against Celtic, and it must come into calculations, but Astana are a much stronger side than the Red Imps and could be backed regardless.
Remarkably the club has only been in existence for seven years, but in that short time it has already amassed two league titles, two Kazakhstan Cups and two Kazakhstan Super Cups. They became the first team from the country to qualify for the Champions League proper last year, beating Maribor, HJK and APOEL in the qualifying rounds. They didn’t manage a victory in the group stages, but held Atletico Madrid, Benfica and Galatasaray to draws on this ground, and also claimed an impressive point away at Galatasaray.
The side is managed by former Bulgarian national coach Stanimir Stoilov, who has led them to the title in the last two consecutive seasons. They’re currently 21 games into the domestic season with a seven point lead at the top of the table. This is a team battle-hardened from competitive football, while Celtic are still in preseason.
The Hoops recorded a 1-1 draw with Leicester in the International Champions Cup over the weekend, before going on to lose on penalties. Brendan Rodgers said afterwards he was pleased with the performance and the intensity of the game, but he’ll know his team will have to go up another level on Wednesday. Astana is five hours ahead of the UK, and the players will have a six hour flight to get there. The game will be played at 8pm local time, but that’s 3pm UK time, so many Celtic fans will still be at work when the game kicks off. The players flew out on Monday to acclimatise to the temperatures, but assistant boss Chris Davies said that there will be “no excuses” if they fail to overcome Astana over two legs.
One suspects that if Celtic are to qualify it will be next week at Celtic Park in front of their raucous crowd, and privately Rodgers would surely take a draw in the first leg if it was offered now. With so much in Astana’s favour though, he may have to overcome another first leg defeat.
Shakhtar Donetsk v Young Boys
Shakhtar Donestk are -200 with Coral to beat Young Boys, and that looks like the best bet on a tricky Tuesday night.
The Ukrainians are Champions League regulars, and even though they struggled in last year’s competition, they are expected to line up in the group stages once again. They were drawn with Real Madrid and PSG in group A last season, along with Malmo, so it was always going to be a difficult task. They were well beaten by PSG twice and Real Madrid once, but they gave the Galacticos a scare in the home tie, coming from four nil down to lose 4-3. Perhaps the only shock was the 1-0 away defeat to Malmo, but they beat the Swedes 4-0 in the reverse tie to finish third and drop into the Europa League. They reached the semi final of that competition, losing out to eventual winners Sevilla.
By contrast Young Boys hadn’t even played a Champions League qualifier since 2010 before last season, but they were thumped 7-1 on aggregate by Monaco at this stage of the competition.
Trencin v Legia Warsaw
Back to Wednesday and Legia Warsaw are well worth a bet to get at least a draw at Trencin, with Bet365 offering -200 about the double chance.
Legia have been unfortunate in recent Champions League qualifying campaigns, going out on away goals to Steaua Bucharest in 2013, and being disqualified in 2014. They beat Celtic comfortably on aggregate but fielded an ineligible player for a few minutes in the second leg and were thrown out of the competition. They failed to qualify last term, so have waited a long time to avenge that decision. They did us a favour last week with a 2-0 home victory over Zrinjski and are good enough to get at least a draw in Slovakia.
Trencin drew 6-6 with Ljubljana in the last round and qualified by virtue of away goals. The first leg finished 4-3 to the Slovakian side, but they were beaten 3-2 at home by Ljubljana. This is only their second foray into the Champions League – beaten 4-3 on aggregate last year by Steaua Bucharest – and defensive weakness may cost them again. Legia are a well organised side and will not give up opportunities lightly, but they are capable of taking chances at the other end.
FC Astana to beat Celtic
Wednesday 27th July, 15:00 GMT
Shakhtar Donetsk to beat Young Boys
Tuesday 26th July, 19:45 GMT
Legia Warsaw or Draw
Wednesday 27th July, 19:30 GMT