Friday's Champions League Draw should hold no fears for Celtic

The recent troubles of  domestic rivals Rangers, while absorbing, have diverted attention from Celtic’s hard earned right to pursue further European adventures. However the good news is that as the well deserved Scottish champions, Celtic’s route towards the 2012-13 Champions League Group Stages will be through the rather easier Champions Route rather than the Non Champions Route they were forced to pursue in recent years as Scottish runners-up. This means they no longer run the risk of being drawn against a top club from one of the Big Five European Leagues. Instead they will face opposition only from the Champion clubs of the other 41 European Leagues.

The combination of Scotland’s National  Coefficient ranking and Celtic’s own still high club coefficient ranking, mean that Celtic were able to sit out the First and Second Rounds of this qualification process. The First Round saw 6 champions from Europe lowest ranked leagues compete for 3 places in the Second Round. The 3 winners, including Linfield, then joined another 31 Champions in a Second Qualification Round to produce 17 ties. The first legs of this round were played on the 17th and 18th July with the second legs due on 24th and 25th  July. The 17 successful clubs will be joined by Celtic, Anderlecht and CFR Cluj from Romania in the draw for the Third Qualifying Round which takes place this Friday, 20th July 2012 with the games due on July31st/1st August and 7th/ 8th August.

Slask Wroclaw the main one to avoid but still beatable

GGW has previously described how a degree in advanced mathematics plus a qualification in nuclear physics is required to cope with the complexities of the Champions League Qualifying draws. For the Third Qualifying Round there will be ten seeded teams and ten unseeded teams. Celtic are guaranteed to be seeded in this round so they will definitely avoid the main dangers like Anderlecht, Basel, Partizan Belgrade and Salzburg. However predicting who they might face is more complicated. After this week’s first leg games it looks as if all seven of the seeded teams who had to play in the Second Qualifying Round will get through, thus avoiding Celtic. However several of the teams seeded in the Second Round draw but unseeded for the Third Round look unlikely to qualify after poor first leg results. Most notably Ventspils of Latvia who were beaten 3-0 in Norway by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Molde. It looks like Solskjaer will be a top class manager of the future. More disappointingly Zestafoni of Georgia who would have been the easiest of the ten unseeded options for Celtic to face, also lost 3-0 away to Neftchi Baku of Azerbajan.

Ekranas the one to hope for on Friday

While their recent European form offers no grounds for complacency, Celtic should certainly be good enough to see off even the best of the remaining ten unseeded clubs, like Slask Wroclaw(Poland), Slovan Liberec(Czech Republic), Debrecen (Hungary),  and AEL Limassol(Cyprus). Apart from Molde and Neftchi Baku, the other 4 teams are likely to be Sheriff Tiripol of Moldova, Maribor from Slovenia, HJK Helsinki from Finland and Ekranas from Lithuania. None of these 6 should cause Celtic any great problems although Rangers supporters might argue that Maribor from Slovenia are a team to beware.

So the worst case scenario would be a beatable Slask Wroclaw or Slovan Liberec, at best a highly beatable  Ekranas from Lithuania.

If Celtic negotiate this first hurdle successfully they will take part in the 4th Qualifying Round, the PlayOff Round, victory in which carries with it a definite place in the Group Stages of the 2012-2013 Champions League. Even defeat in this Round guarantees  inclusion in the Europa League Group Stages. The Draw for this 4th Round takes place on   10th August 2012   with the first legs on 21st/22nd August and 2nd legs on 28th/29th August.

Partizan Belgrade the main danger in the 4th Round

Once again Celtic are certain to be seeded for this 4th Qualifying Round ensuring they would avoid the other 4 top ranked clubs, Anderlecht, Basel, Salsburg and Bate Borissov(Bulgaria). If the previous round went as anticipated according to the rankings, Celtic’s 5 potential opponents would be Dinamo Zagreb, Partizan Belgrade, CFR Cluj, MSK Zilinia(Slovakia) or Helsingborg (Sweden). After what Malmo did to Rangers last year, Celtic should be advised not to underestimate Helsingborg. Of the Eastern European alternatives, none of them are mugs. Both Dinamo Zagreb and Partizan Belgrade have European histories nearly as glorious as Celtic’s even if their current status is much lowlier. CFR Cluj are a stuffy team, hard to beat but MSK Zilinia are probably the weakest of the quintet and so should be Celtic’s preferred option.

Zilinia, the one to hope for in the 4th Round Draw

So it is likely that either the Swedish champions or a quartet of beatable Eastern European champions represent the barrier between Celtic and a resumption of what most Celtic fans consider  their rightful location, the Group Stages of the world’s premier Club competition.

.

As for Motherwell, they will have to pursue the harder Non Champions Route  unseeded, indeed they are the lowest ranked of all the teams involved. In the Third Round they will have to face one of four seasoned European teams, Dynamo Kiev, Panathinaikos, FC Copenhagen and Fenerbahce. In the unlikely event Motherwell beat one of them, their 4th round potential opponents would include the other 3 plus Spartak Moscow and Braga. So it is unlikely Motherwell will be able to help Celtic by adding positively to Scotland’s club coefficient.

It is one of the less fortunate by-products of Rangers removal from Europe in disgrace that Celtic will have to carry that burden on their own and will almost certainly need a long Champions League run to avoid a situation whereby next year as almost certain Scottish Champions they will no longer be exempt from the Second Qualifying Round, meaning European action as soon as mid July 2013.

So while recent memories of opponents like Braga and Utrecht should prevent any complacency, it should be well within the capabilities of Neil Lennon’s current squad to overcome moderate opposition and qualify once more for the big time, the group Stages of the Champions League.