Celtic and CFR Cluj will face one another in the third round of the Champions League qualifiers. The first leg will be in Romania on Wednesday of next week.
Going into last night’s game, Cluj were 1-0 up from the first leg and travelled to Tel-Aviv with that narrowest of leads. Unlike Celtic whose away tie in Tallinn was a formality.
Both approaches would have been different with the game in Tel-Aviv in the balance and the match in Tallinn more like a friendly. Whilst Celtic were easing their way to a 0-2 away win to make it 7-0 on aggregate, Maccabi Tel-Aviv struck first to bring their tie even on aggregate.
It was short lived though when Cluj pulled level on the night from the penalty spot just four minutes later. Once again it was advantage Cluj and now they had an away goal into the bargain.
Just before half-time, Cluj scored again to make it 1-2 (2-2 on aggregate). By this point it was looking grim for Tel-Aviv and positive for Cluj.
In the second half Tel-Aviv came out with intent and scored three minutes after the restart. All of a sudden things were looking up again, but the Israelis failed to find the net again and Cluj won 2-3 on aggregate.
So now Maccabi Tel-Aviv parachute into the Europa League where they will face Celtic’s old opponents FK Sūduva in the third qualifying round. Cluj will prepare to host the Scottish Champions in Romania.
Neil Lennon and Celtic will have the utmost respect for Cluj. Back in July 2013 they played Cluj in a pre-season friendly in Austria during their summer training camp.
Cluj won that match 2-1 and couple of their players from that match have since returned to the club. Ciprian Deac is now in his third period at the Romanian Champions whilst Damjan Djoković is now in his second stint after spells in Italy, France and Germany.
Perhaps one of their most influential players is their Portuguese captain, Camora. He has been at Cluj for over eight years now and pledged to finish his career at the club.
Manager Dan Petrescu is in his second spell has manager at Cluj after nine months coaching in China. He returned in time to clinch a second successful Romanian title.
For Lennon and Petrescu, they have much in common. They are both in their second terms at their respective clubs, have both played in England and have also represented their country at international level.
Whilst Petrescu’s managerial career started earlier than Lennon’s both managers have enjoyed relative success. Neil has won four league titles and three Scottish Cups with Celtic as well as second tier title with Hibs.
Petrescu is not without is own success either. He won the Liga 1 and Romanian Cup with Unirea Urziceni, the second tier title with Kuban Krasnodar in Russia, the Romanian Super Cup with ASA Targu Mures, Chinese FA Cup with Jiangsu Suning and two back-to-back Liga 1 titles with Cluj.
This will be a full bodied contest and most likely the toughest one Celtic will have faced this summer so far. FK Sarajevo and Nomme Kalju parked the bus and hit on the break over the four previous qualifiers.
I expect Cluj to impose themselves more than our previous opponents. On Saturday, St Johnstone come to Celtic Park as the domestic season gets under way.
Expect a tougher match from Tommy Wright’s team than any team Celtic have faced so far in Europe this summer. That may not be a bad thing as it will be a step up for us when facing Cluj.
It’s also worth noting that Cluj have already begun their domestic season. They’re only three games into that season, but in terms of preparation they have more competitive matches under their belt than Celtic.
With the group stages getting closer and our domestic season about to begin, things are beginning to get real for Celtic. We have a good squad and Neil Lennon has said he still aims to add more faces.
I’m actually pleased with the work that has been done so far. We haven’t seen the best of our team yet, but we are making steady progress.
Neil knows what lies ahead and he knows what is at stake. For the first time in a long time, I think we have the right attitude.
We will see how far we have come in the weeks ahead.