Celts Champions League quest gathering pace

Celtic FC

Celtic FC

There’s something rather unique about the supporter who is lucky enough to support a team which gets to ply its trade in European Football and gets to follow them on away trips.

Take the 100 or so Aberdeen fans who recently undertook the 6830 mile round trip to face Kairat Almaty of Kazakhstan in what was the longest distance travelled in a European cup competition. With flights costing around £3000, those fans were probably irked to have been beaten 2-1 and had to then face a 10 hour flight home.

Following your team in Europe isn’t the cheapest hobby you can have and as Celtic fans are finding out again this season, to follow their club on their quest to qualify for the Champions League is going to come with sizeable price tag – although some fans won’t question the cost and will simply pay it as part of their hopeful journey glory.

First off, it was a trip to Iceland to see Ronny Deila’s men start their Champions League campaign when they took on Stjarnan in the second qualifying round. The Scottish champions proved to be too strong for the part-time Icelandic outfit as they progressed into the third phase of qualifying with a 2-0 first leg win, followed up by a 4-1 away victory, which was secured despite going one goal down.

Turning out for Celtic in his first set of appearances for the Hoops in these games was new signing Nadir Ciftci – the former Dundee United forward who put pen to paper in a £1.5m deal – who made an inauspicious start to his career in the two games.

Ciftci, 23, is not eligible to play in the first six opening Premiership games after being banned for biting an opponent in the Dundee derby last season.

His ban doesn’t apply to European competitions so he’s been given his opportunity to show the Parkhead faithful why the Turkish-born striker was signed on a four-year deal, after scoring 33 goals in two seasons at Dundee United.

There will be an even higher level of scrutiny towards Ciftci – whose agent is former Celtic forward Pierre van Hooijdonk, after he was given the number seven jersey which was made famous by such Celtic greats as Kenny Dalglish and Henrik Larsson.

So after their Icelandic adventure, Celtic players, officials and fans headed straight to Google to look up who FK Qarabag were after they were drawn against them in the third round of qualifying. The results of the search flagged up the fact that instead of a short-hop across into Europe, the Bhoys in Green were to face a tricky journey to the capital of Azerbaijan, Baku, in order to keep up their hopes of reaching the Champions’ League group stages.

Fast forward to the first leg at Parkhead and their quest was helped when a late goal from defender Dedryck Boyata gave Celtic a slender 1-0 victory in the first leg tie, meaning the second leg in Baku on the shores of the Caspian Sea is going to be a nervy and tense affair.
The summer signing from Manchester City broke the deadlock in the 82nd minute with a powerful header to finally break the resolve of the Azerbaijanis, who certainly won’t be feeling sorry for themselves. Instead, they’ll be looking forward to the game at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium on August 5th (kick off 5.30pm UK time).

After the game, boss Ronny Deila said that he wanted Celtic to score a vital away goal to ensure that they went through without worry, rather than trying to hang onto their slender advantage from the first leg.

He said: “We have to get one goal and then they need three. We have to play a top match to get through. I’m happy that we got a clean sheet and got a goal – it was very important into the next leg. Defensively we were excellent. In the last third of the pitch we didn’t get enough crosses but we got enough to get one goal and I’m happy with that.

“One-zero is a very good result. That’s one of the best teams that’s been here since I’ve been here. It’s going to be a totally different game [in Baku] and they have to go forward to score goals and we’ll be [playing] more on breaks and we have speed up front.

“You can see they’ve had the same coach [Gurban Gurbanov] for seven years. They build, play the same way and in the end, they play with confidence, they rely on their system and you can see they’re a good team.

“But we have two good strikers who can cause them problems. Nadir Ciftci showed a great attitude before we replaced him with Leigh (Griffiths). Those two can be used in different ways and can also play together so I’m delighted at having both of them.

“The noise and atmosphere we had in the stadium delivered another great European occasion and I would like to thank all our fans who were at the match.

“Before the match I asked for our fans to be there again and support us as only they know how and they did it brilliantly – and once again in huge numbers. I also said before the match that we were playing an excellent team and that proved to be the case.

“We knew we would face a difficult match but our fans stayed with us all the way and drove us on to a valuable win, and myself and the players are grateful again for such magnificent support. My players gave everything in the game and are delighted to have won the match and be ahead in the tie.”

Goal scorer Boyata said it was vital that an away goal wasn’t conceded by the Hoops ahead of the second leg, with the Belgian displaying a cautious outlook on the game in Baku.

“We managed not to concede a goal against Qarabag, and we know that away goals are really important. We scored a goal and we go there with the advantage, but we still know there are 90 minutes to be played and we know it will be really hard,” he said.

“Before the game, we knew they were a really good team on the ball. They held it a bit and that was a tactic they used against us, sitting in and then looking for opportunities. Going over there now they have to score and we know they are really good on the ball. For us, it’s about choosing the right tactic and coming up with the right result.

“We have the quality to win the game over there. You never know what can happen over the next 90 minutes, but we can come back with a good result. In the first leg, we didn’t really get tested and you don’t really know what can happen over there. For us, especially the defenders it’s all about staying focused and not conceding any goals.”

On the domestic front, Celtic began their quest for their 11th top flight title of the Millennium by defeating Ross County 2-0, on the day that the Champions flag was proudly flown over the ground.

Goals by Leigh Griffiths and Stefan Johansen made it 10 games unbeaten for Celtic in all competitions on a celebratory day in Glasgow, although the game was a scrappy affair, which all but ended in a contest after two first half goals.