So, we’re off to Kazakhstan. Again.
My mates predicted this on Wednesday night; our “traditional trip” was not to be denied us. We’ve been there so often Celtic fans probably have a better grasp of the country than Sacha Baron Cohen has.
Regardless, Borat is all that stands in our way.
Last season, of course, we played the same team and we beat them 2-1 at Celtic Park and secured what was then a very credible 1-1 draw away from home. Few would doubt that we’re a better team now than we were then, so on the surface of it our path to the Groups looks pretty straightforward now.
We have to be confident that we’ll make it.
Brendan’s team has come on leaps and bounds, but let’s not forget that it took a late, last minute, penalty kick from big Moussa to send us through without the inconvenience and stark terror of extra time. This time the first leg is at home; that suits us better, in my view. If you do the job at home, convincingly, you know what you have to do, but the real objective is not to concede an away goal. If you manage to accomplish that you are in business, as this round showed.
So the games will not be easy, but it’s a favourable draw and one that we should be able to navigate with some confidence.
Astana are an improved team as well, it has to be said.
They knocked Legia Warsaw out in the last round, winning their home leg 3-1 before suffering a 1-0 reversal away. They were a tough outfit over their last time around, and no-one should expect it to be easy, but we’ve got time enough to get up to speed before the matches and you have to feel we’re favourites.
Liverpool drew Hoffenheim. Normally I wouldn’t care who anyone outside of Celtic got, but that one could be significant. The Germans are a good side, and if they can manage to get a result and the Anfield men crash out that puts us in Pot 3 should we take care of the Kazaks.
Without thinking too far ahead, that would surely spare us the kind of horror draw we seem to get in this competition every single season, without fail.
You can’t help but think that after having drawn Astana again that there’s a certain, gloomy, inevitability about coming up against Messi …
But that’s definitely projecting too far into the future. This tie has to be navigated first, and Astana will not be easy to beat, especially over there. They have actually gone more than a dozen home games in Europe without a defeat; that’s a very decent record when you consider that the likes of Olympiakos, Benfica, Atletico Madrid and Galatasary have been amongst the sides to go there and not return with a victory. And then there’s us.
Notably, he also scored at Celtic Park, so if he’s fit they will be wary of him.
That Celtic team also included Moussa, of course, but crucially, perhaps, not Scott Sinclair. His drive and energy will make a huge difference, I think, especially in the home game.
So it’s doable. They are a good side without being particularly frightening. They are a workmanlike team rather than one possessed of exceptional skill. We proved capable of knocking them out in the last campaign, and we’re further on than we were then.
I don’t really have many fears about this, if I’m being honest. The trip over there, which is an absolute horror, probably contributes to the poor form of western European teams in their ground, and it’s a journey we’ve done already. So the players won’t be concerned either.
Last year this looked a tougher encounter.
This year, I have no such worries.