Icelandic pot hole in Euro fast lane for Celtic

THE road to Champions League millions has been made easier by Uefa chief Michel Platini, who created a lane specifically for champions of their nation.

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The Super Eagle has landed...Nigerian star Efe Ambrose is in the frame to play tonight for Celtic
The Super Eagle has landed...Nigerian star Efe Ambrose is in the frame to play tonight for Celtic

Celtic should be grateful for this, given that, if it had remained an all-in draw, they might have been forced to negotiate such pitfalls as ties against the likes of Arsenal, Porto, Zenit St Petersburg, Bayer Leverkusen and Napoli.

Indeed, if Celtic were in the non-champions side of the qualification process, they would lie among the lowest-ranked clubs, leaving them to joust with comparative giants.

By contrast, the current system, implemented in 2009, allows them to remain on the seeded side of the draw all the way through.

And, while history has shown this guarantees nothing - Celtic were seeded when dumped out by Utrecht four years ago, and Artmedia five years before that, while they were unseeded when they sent Ajax tumbling in 2001 - it is generally considered a major advantage.

What is not on their side is the fact that, due to Scottish football's co-efficient tumbling in the past half dozen years, they must now enter the qualification process at an earlier stage.

While it is only six years ago that, as SPL champions, Gordon Strachan's side went straight into the group stage, now, and for the foreseeable future, the SPFL Premiership's sole representative will have to cut short their summer holidays and enter the fray at qualifying round two.

It would take Celtic and the other clubs representing Scotland in the Europa League to enjoy successful points-gathering campaigns to reverse this.

So the back-to-back wins already recorded by Aberdeen in their ties against Daugava Riga of Latvia were warmly received by everyone at Parkhead.

Tonight they have to do it for themselves when they run out against KR Reykjavik in the tiny Vollur Stadium in the Icelandic capital.

It's all a far cry from hearing the Champions League theme tune booming out at places like the Nou Camp.

But to get on to that stage again, the Hoops know they must have their game heads on in ties like this one and avoid the double danger of complacency and ring-rust.

KR have the huge advantage of being midway through their season, and will hope to use this to good effect tonight and in the return leg at Murrayfield in a week's time.

Ronny Deila will instruct his players to try to take the sting out of the opposition, the energy out of their legs, and the idea of an upset from their thoughts by retaining possession, passing quickly and accurately, and imposing their skill superiority on the Icelandic champions who have no track record of taking big scalps.

The homework and in-depth analysis on KR's strengths - and weaknesses - has been done. The information has been passed on to the players.

Tonight, it is down to them to use it, as they did this time last year when they cruised through their opening tie against Cliftonville in Belfast.

A repeat of that 3-0 first-leg win would be well-received by everyone in the Celtic camp, though any victory would be acceptable.

Assistant boss John Collins has been backing up Deila as he prepares the players, physically and mentally, for the most important six games of their season - four qualifiers and two play-offs.

But the former midfielder admitted: "It is a big test. All the preparations have gone towards getting a good performance and good result.

"We have had four matches and the squad is getting fitter every day."

While this is reassuring, given what is at stake - Celtic would exit Europe for the season if they fell at this opening hurdle- nerves may be the biggest obstacle the Hoops must overcome.

Certainly KR striker Kjarten Finnbogason - who was on the books of Celtic for three years until he cut loose in search of first-team football in 2008 - makes no pretence that the gulf between the two clubs is anything but on a par with the width of the stretch of Atlantic which separates them.

The 28-year-old said: "We have to realistic, they are a big club with a huge budget. But there is always a chance.

"KR have done well in Uefa competitions, and in 2011 we beat MSK Zilina, who had played in the Champions League the year before.

"So if we play our best game and they are not so good, anything can happen.

"Our staff is trying to find the weakness in Celtic, if there is any. But we will not surrender before this big game.

"Like we have seen in the World Cup, results do not always go by the book."

That's a thought which the Celtic players would do well to carry with them tonight.

While they must not be over-confident, they must also guard against allowing fear of the unknown paralyse them.

The best vaccine for this is a healthy dose of the ball - and goals. Collins would certainly prescribe this and said: "We want to go there and try to score.

"We've watched them twice. We've had videos cut up so we know their strengths and weaknesses. But at the end of the day, it is about how we play."

Truth be told, Celtic can be a bit below their best and should still be good enough.

But Deila wants to start how he means to go on. And the demands he has been making in friendlies - quick tempo, good possession, effective turn overs, slick passing - must be met, or he will have no compunction about making changes and removing established players from their comfort zone.

Collins reminds them what is at stake. A place in the draw for the Group Stage is not just an objective, it is an imperative.

"This is where Celtic want to be," he said. "We want to be on the big stage. We know we have to take care of this team.

"It won't be easy, it never is at the start of the season. But we are looking forward to it."

Football

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