If the Champions League represents the summit ridge of European football, its qualifiers are a clawing scramble up a sheer cliff by climbers bent on dislodging one another from the handholds.
Celtic’s campaign has seen them get beyond Sarajevo of Bosnia on a 5-2 aggregate score and the Estonians of Nomme Kalju by 7-0 over two legs, and this evening they must outdistance CFR Cluj, whom they lead on away goals after last week’s 1-1 draw in Romania.
Most of the omens point to a Celtic success, which would put them into a play-off against Slavia Prague for a place in the group stage. Neil Lennon, though, is too experienced to take much notice of runes, despite a start to the domestic league campaign which has seen the Hoops score 12 goals in their opening two fixtures.
Asked how wary he was of opponents managed by Dan Petrescu, Lennon said: “Very – they scored two against Maccabi away, which isn’t an easy thing to do. They rested the team again at the weekend, so there’ll be a freshness to them and it will mean a lot to them, as it does to us.
“We’re looking forward to the game and obviously at Celtic Park we’re looking to strike home that advantage. Again, it can flip very quickly so we take nothing for granted but we’re delighted with the way we’ve played – and the goals, obviously.
“We look a threat and we’re making good chances, so we look to do the same again but we’re mindful of keeping a clean sheet.”
Petrescu is shameless when it comes to gamesmanship, and prior to the return leg he has likened Celtic to Barcelona – “They have young players and we have old players” – and tried to put pressure on tonight’s match official, Andris Treimanis of Latvia, saying: “I just hope the refereeing is fair.
“It’s normal when you play Celtic in the Champions League and they are at home, that the referee gives them an extra 10 per cent of the decisions.” Lennon’s response was to the point.
“Certainly not in Europe,” he said. “I’ve been really pleased with the referees’ performances in all the qualifiers, to the point where we’ve not had to talk about them.” (© Daily Telegraph, London)