It’s that time of year again for Celtic – Champions League qualification. The Hoops managed navigate through three qualifying rounds last season before entering the promise land of Champions League group stage football.
It was Brendan Rodgers’ first real achievement at Celtic. Rodgers, who had only been at the club for a few months, managed to get the Hoops back into the lucrative monopoly of Europe’s elite competition. Twelve months on, the Bhoys will aim to make back-to-back group stage appearances in the Champions League.
Last season, Celtic faced the Lincoln Red Imps, Astana and Hapoel Be’er Sheva en route to sealing a spot in the Champions League. This campaign though, the Hoops could play some sides closer to home in the early qualifying rounds.
So who can the Hoops potentially face?
Should Celtic go through every round (including the play-off stage) then they would be seeded for every single tie up until the group stage draw, where they would be most likely in pot 4.
The Lincoln Red Imps were the side who Celtic previously faced in the second round of qualifying last year. After a shock 1-0 defeat in Gibraltar, an early goal blitz against the Imps at Celtic Park allowed the Scottish champions to ease through and progress into the third round stage.
While the Imps are not competing in this season’s Champions League qualification, Europa FC, are flying the flag for Gibraltar, who won their first league title since 1952. However closer to Scottish shores, Celtic could face The New Saints, Linfield or last season’s Europa League group stage entrants, Dundalk, which would provide a more favourable tie for Brendan Rodgers’ side given the travel time.
Celtic at this early stage though will want to avoid a trip to the far east. Alashkert and Samtredia would leave the Hoops with a long distance trip across the continent.
Providing that the seeded teams from the first round of qualifying go through, here would be the best and worst case scenarios for the Hoops in round two of Champions League qualification.
Best: IFK Mariehamn (Finland) The New Saints (Wales) Linfield (N. Ireland) Dundalk (Republic of Ireland)
Worst: MSK Zilina (Slovakia) Alashkert (Armenia) Samtredia (Georgia)
Providing that the seeded teams who are expected to go through do, then Celtic will face even stronger opposition in the third round. Should the Hoops want to progress into the play-off round, then they may need to face familiar foes in Hapoel Be’er Sheva and Astana.
Hapoel Be’er Sheva and Astana provided tough tests for Celtic last season, with the Hoops narrowly going through both ties by the finest of margins. Malmo are the other recognised team in the third round draw, provided if they were to get through the second round. The Swedish champions, who ended Ronny Deila’s dreams of Champions League football two years ago, would be the hardest tie on paper.
Rosenborg, NK Rijeka & Partizan Belgrade are just some of other teams Celtic could face in the third round. Again, a trip to the far east may be difficult for Rodgers’ side but usually the third qualifying round in the past few years has offered a more testing tie.
Best: Viitorul Constanta (Romania) FH Hafnarfjardar (Iceland) Sheriff Tiraspol (Moldova)
Worst: Hapoel Be’er Sheva (Israel) Astana (Kazakhstan) Malmo (Sweden) Partizan Belgrade (Serbia)
Again providing if all seeded teams get through the play-off round, Celtic would be seeded and wouldn’t face the likes of Olympiacos, Ludogorets & FC Copenhagen. However, they would face opposition who have played in the Champions League in the last few seasons.
If all were to go to plan with the seeded teams going through then Celtic’s five potential opponents are likely to be Legia Warsaw, Apoel Nicosia, Maribor, BATE Borisov and Qarabag.
Celtic have had recent history with three of those teams with Maribor being the only club to knock out the Hoops in the Champions League play-off round nearly three years ago. Legia Warsaw and Qarabag were knocked out by the Hoops but BATE & Apoel have never crossed paths with Scottish champions in European football.
All five clubs would provide Celtic with the toughest test during qualification but there are weakness amongst all five sides. Ideally for seeding purposes Celtic would rather face Qarabag out of the five predicted teams but realistically every tie in the play-off is by no means an easy ticket into Champions League football. If Celtic want to get to the group stages this season, then they may have to face an almighty task to get there with some of the teams in the play-off round.
Best: Qarabag (Azerbaijan) Maribor (Slovenia)
Worst: Apoel Nicosia (Cyprus) BATE Borisov (Belarus) Legia Warsaw (Poland)
While this is all hypothetical, it should give an insight into who Celtic may face on the road to the Champions League group stages. What is important to note though is that there is a chance, by each round, a seeded opponent may be knocked out. This would make qualifying on paper, somewhat easier for the Hoops.
With that said, though, Celtic will want to make sure it’s not them who get knocked out, but instead navigate their way safely into Europe’s elite competition for a second successive year.