CHAMPIONS League? You’re having a laugh. That was the message from Celtic supporters to UEFA last night, but they will hope those words aren’t prophetic in regards to their own side’s chances in the tournament after a 1-1 draw with AEK Athens at Celtic Park.

The home support unveiled a giant banner prior to the third qualifying tie in their long quest to reach the promised land of the group stages making the point that teams who finish fourth in more glamorous leagues skip the queue, while the UEFA-appointed bouncer guards the entrance to the riches within from the likes of Celtic, despite winning their own domestic championship.

It was a pointed message amid what was otherwise a buoyant pre-match atmosphere around the home of the Scottish champions. So often on these nights at Celtic Park there is a sense of nervous anticipation, verging on dread, given the stakes. But prior to the match last night there was a confidence, verging on expectancy, of what was to come.

That may have been surprising given that much of the talk in the last couple of days has centred around the apparent displeasure of Brendan Rodgers with the state of his squad and the failure of the club to replace those who have departed, and the confirmation immediately prior to kick-off that Celtic had lost out to Aston Villa in the pursuit of John McGinn might not have helped to lift his mood.

Those who are at the club though set about the task of providing some cheer for their boss though, and it took a little over a quarter of an hour for them to put a smile on his face.

It was no surprise that Kieran Tierney played a part, who must have had around a third of the possession on his own in the opening stages. His attempted pass to Callum McGregor wasn’t one of his best, but it somehow squeezed through to the midfielder, who swivelled and slammed the ball into the far corner of the net.

He wasn’t exactly having a laugh, but even AEK Athens head coach Marinos Ouzounidis could afford a wry chuckle and a shake of the head at the bedlam unfolding all around him.

The visitors had only sporadically threatened until just before the interval, when it looked as though the clowns had been sent into the Celtic defence to wipe the smile off the faces of the home crowd.

Mikael Lustig failed to get close to Helder Lopes, who fired in a cross from wide on the left that Kristoffer Ajer looked set to cut out, but he inexplicably left the ball to Victor Klonaridis who fired home from 12 yards.

From nowhere, suddenly it would have been stern faces all around in the Celtic dressing room at the break, but the mood was lifted significantly when Konstantinos Galanopolous foolishly tripped James Forrest as the Celtic winger broke at pace, picking up a second booking and leaving the visitors a man shy with over half an hour still to play.

There was a moment of light relief as Olivier Ntcham stepped on and burst the referee’s foam canister, but if Celtic were to prove themselves serious contenders to make the group stage, now was the time.

Brendan Rodgers sent for the jokers in his pack, with Leigh Griffiths and Scott Sinclair entering the fray as the Celtic manager smelled blood, but the home side were toiling to break down the now massed ranks of the Greek defence.

Celtic worked the ball relentlessly from side-to-side on the edge of the area, but that routine looked to be wearing a little thin as threaded final balls into the area repeatedly missed their mark or found a yellow and black jersey throwing itself in the way to repel the ball.

Celtic kept knocking at the door deep into injury-time, and came close when Olivier Ntcham unleashed a curling effort from the edge of the area that only just cleared the crossbar, but there was to be no way through as the Greek champions celebrated a result that puts them in pole position to progress.

Celtic are left with significant work to do in Athens next week if they are to maintain their chances of having a laugh all the way to the group stages, and to the bank.