All eyes on Nyon…

This morning, Celtic will learn who their opponents are for the second qualifying round in the Champions League. This is the first of three hurdles Brendan Rodgers and his players are expected to overcome in order to seal a place in the group phase of the competition.

He’s been here before with Celtic and cleared all three challenges at the first time of asking. It was by no means a foregone conclusion though.

In the Champions League, or the Europa League, there are no easy teams. Celtic lost to an ‘easy team’ from Gilbraltar in their first competitive match under Brendan as they got their qualifying campaign under way last summer.

Even though Celtic won the return leg and the overall tie 3-1, that first game didn’t exactly put supporters minds at ease. What was traditionally the ‘close season’ has now become part of the season for Celtic meaning a very short rest.

Teams like Lincoln Red Imps eat the flesh of vulnerable teams like Celtic who may go into such games with a degree of complacency. In the round that followed that one, a narrrow victory saw Celtic progress 3-2 on aggregate ahead of Astana of Kazakhstan.

At the final hurdle, Celtic showed signs of upping their game by winning the home leg 5-2 against Hapoel Be’er Sheva. In the return fixture though, the Israeli champions made a game of it and won 2-0, making it a nail-biting finish with a 5-4 aggregate victory for Celtic.

It had been three seasons since Celtic had played in the group stages of the tournament after Ronny Deila failed at both attempts. Neil Lennon had been the last Celtic manager to qualify and finally they were back at the big table again.

It is never a simple passage for Celtic these days. Gone are the days of one qualify round or even automatic entry despite being champions – it’s a sham.

These qualifiers come so early, but Celtic should be well used to that by now. A year on it will be interesting to see what the players and coaching staff have learned from last seasons experience.

The grand majority of this team will remain together and should be seen as a benefit going into this competition as the same band of brothers. In fact most of them have been together for more than a season with the exception of Moussa Dembele, Kolo Toure and Scott Sinclair.

With largely the same team there is already an established bond and understanding among this squad. That became apparrent as last season progressed under Brendan.

To progress, the players will need to push themselves further. There will be additions and departures, but the key elements are already there and are likely to remain regardless of what the media are otherwise suggesting.

Only one key player appears out of our grasp and that is Patrick Roberts. Nothing is certain, but should he go elsewhere we thank him for some memorable moments.

Yet you never know. Unless he gets something decent, he’ll find it hard to forget Celtic.

He can still have a career down south. Another year or two in Scotland would not do his career any harm.

Maybe when he tunes into the Champions League qualifying draw this morning he’ll remember what it is like to be a Celt. To be adored by the entire Celtic faithful. 

We’re only three weeks from that first competitive match. All eyes will be on Nyon at 11am this morning.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac 

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