Cliftonville v Celtic
Champions League Qualfying Round 2. Kick off: Wednesday 7.45pm. Live on BBC 2 Scotland
From Paradise to Solitude. There’s a name for a book if ever there was one, but that’s the trip facing SPL champions Celtic tonight as they kick-off their competitive campaign away to the champions of Northern Ireland, Cliftonville.
Whether the Hoops, who reached the last 16 of the competition last season, should be faced with such a treacherous route in to the competition proper is a debate for another day but this looks such a big banana skin for Neil Lennon’s men that the match should be sponsored by Fyffes.
Preparations have not gone as Neil Lennon would have liked. As expected, powerhouse Victor Wanyama has departed to seek riches in the Premier League. Gary Hooper is casting envious glances and an ahem… hamstring injury – no doubt sustained running to pick the phone to answer his agent’s calls – keeps him out of tonight’s game. 4 defeats in 4 pre-season friendly matches and an injury list that includes the likes Mulgrew, Matthews, Ledley and Van Dijk doesn’t make Celtic’s task any easier. As suggested over at the excellent CelticQuickNews the Bhoys do not have excuses to seek.
But can lowly Cliftonville pull off a shock result? History would suggest they can as Celtic have only just squeaked past Irish opposition in the past. Back in 1979 they only managed a 0-0 draw with Dundalk, albeit enough to take them through 3-2 on aggregate. And in 1998 they recorded the same scoreline against St Pats before following it up with a 2-0 win at Celtic Park.
And lest we forget that Celtic themselves turned the tables on one of the greatest club sides of all time just last season when they shocked Lionel Messi and Co to record a stunning 2-1 win over Barcelona.
Additionally, the previous two campaigns when Scottish teams have entered the competition at this stage has seen them eliminated before they got the chance to mix it with the big boys. In Celtic’s case it was a humbling at the hands of Artmedia Bratislava, for Rangers a costly exit at the hands of Lithuanians Kaunas.
Cliftonville were just one match away from an historic treble last season and swept all in front of them aside. Admittedly the Northern Irish Premier is not in the top echelons of world football but they’re a well-drilled side, arguably the best in their club’s history. An extended capacity at Solitude will have the place rocking in what has been a troublesome week for the city of Belfast and anything blow par from Celtic could see them in a bit of bother.
On tour Celtic managed just 3 goals. They’ll be without Hooper tonight and new signing Amido Balde has looked more like his namesake and former Celtic centre-back Bobo in front of goal so far. Goals could be hard to come by against a well-organised Cliftonville defence. Best to steer clear of first scorer markets in this one.
I realise that there’s a massive gulf in class and budget between the two clubs and tipping the underdogs here is a short-cut to looking foolish but it’s all about the value tonight and there’s nothing to suggest in the recent form and current circumstances around Celtic that it lies with them. Add to the fact that this is the first leg and Celtic will be confident of turning any situation around at Celtic Park and you simple have to side with The Reds.
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