Who should Celtic supporters pray to come out the urn with Celtic?

Well, for all that GGW had before the Third Round Draw identified HJK Helsinki as the weakest opponents available for Celtic, disposing of them proved slightly more difficult than might have been expected. However in the end the professionalism and concentration of Neil Lennon’s team allied to their individual and tactical superiority, was sufficient to see them safely through to the 4th and final Knockout Round  of the Champions League. Now only one two legged tie stands between Celtic and the place in the Group Stages of the Champions League which their history and tradition and size  entitles them to expect as their just due.

So which opponents should Celtic supporters include in their prayers tonight to be the preferred opponents  to be drawn against Celtic in Friday’s draw?

All 5 of the clubs pre-identified as the 5 seeded clubs for the 4th Knockout Round (Champions Route) draw made it through safely enough. Given that Celtic are one of them, ranked 3rd, this guarantees that Celtic cannot be drawn against Anderlecht, Basle, BATE Borissov or Dinamo Zagreb. The first two, both ranked above Celtic, would have been difficult opposition, the latter two both ranked below Celtic would have been easier to beat.

The five possible opponents, in order of their ranking are

CFR Cluj of Romania

Helsingborg of Sweden

Maribor of Slovenia

AEL Limassol of Cyprus

Hapoel Kiryat Shmona of Israel

However the level of difficulty as opponents does not correspond to their co-efficient ranking.

Helsingborg beatable but best avoided

Helsingborg are the team currently in best European form and most to be feared. They are far superior in both talent and tactical sophistication to HJK Helsinki. They defeated the dangerous Polish Champions Slask Wroclaw with  victories in both legs. Hopefully Celtic will avoid them but if they are paired together, then there should be no despair. On their best form, Celtic are well capable of being a better side than the Swedish champions. Helsingborg are not seen by most Swedes as being as good as last year’s champions Malmo who only eliminated Rangers because of the tactical naivety of the new Ibrox manager. They are only in 6th place in this year’s Swedish League. Still, they are the main one to be avoided.

CFR Cluj and AEL Limassol are stuffy teams both of whom emerged from the 3rd Round with home and away leg wins, against the champions of the Czech Republic and Serbia, two strong European powers. On that form both would be capable of stretching Celtic but both should be well within the capability of the current Celtic team to eliminate. Both are significantly stronger than the other two teams available, so on that basis, while not to be feared they are better avoided given a weaker alternative.

Many Celtic supporters will probably hope the draw pairs their club against Maribor, as another way of sticking one to Rangers who succumbed to Maribor, without being in any way outclassed, in this stage of last season, albeit in the Europa League. While Celtic could rightly be fairly confident about progression if drawn against Maribor the Slovenians are not the weakest of the 5 possible opponents.

Hapoel Still the best bet

That distinction belongs to Hapoel Kiryat Shmona of Israel. Their level of competence was probably amply demonstrated on Wednesday night when only a last minute goal prevented them from losing away to Neftchi Baku, easily the weakest of the 20 teams in the 3rd Round. Celtic would have little to fear other than their own capacity for complacency and slackness in being drawn against Hapoel, while  a trip to Israel should prove a pleasant diversion for both players and supporters.

So while all 5 possible opponents are teams which Celtic should be capable of beating, Helsinborg are the ones best avoided and Maribor and especially Hapoel are the ones to hope come out the draw paired with Celtic.

GGW will provide a full profile here of whichever opponents emerge from Friday’s draw