Who will Celtic want to face or avoid in Champions League play-offs?
Moussa Dembele’s nerves of steel were needed last night as the youngster netted an injury-time penalty to give Celtic victory over Kazakh side Astana in the Champions League, and secure progression to the play-off round.
That means only one opponent stands between the Hoops and a first spot in the competition’s group stage for three seasons. So, here’s the sides they’ll want to face – and the names they’ll want to avoid.
Hapoel Be’er Sheva (Israel)
The club from Israel’s Negev desert upset the odds by lifting a first league title in 30 years last season. But perhaps more surprising has been their European exploits this season.
A late penalty in the first leg against Moldovan side Sheriff made the difference in the first round, before a nervy and perhaps undeserved 1-0 aggregate win over Olympiakos.
Well-organised and tough to break down, they lack creativity and more importantly, the pace to contain Leigh Griffiths or Patrick Roberts. They’re not minnows, but they’re definitely beatable.
Difficulty rating: 2/5
Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia)
Having made the Champions League group stage in two of the past four seasons, the capital outfit are no strangers to navigating the play-offs. They even pulled off a shock victory against Arsenal during last season’s European foray and played some superb football along the way.
However, this summer has seen the club sell all of their top talents, with Marco Pjaca heading to Juventus for £19.55m, while the departed Josip Brekalo and Marcelo Brozovic have not been adequately replaced, with Dinamo’s new buys far below the quality of those exiting for pastures new.
Difficulty rating: 3/5
Ludogorets Razgrad (Bulgaria)
The team affectionately known as Orlite (‘the Eagles’) soared way above their challengers in the Bulgarian Football League last season, winning the league title by an impressive 14 points – though one point less than the Hoops’ margin of domestic dominance.
Georgi Dermendzhiev’s men reached the Champions League group stage two seasons back, taking points off of Basel and Liverpool in the process, and the Bulgarians have looked impressive so far this time around, toppling Red Star Belgrade in the last round with an attacking masterclass on their travels.
With the likes of Canada keeper Milan Borjan, former Brazilian prodigy Marcelinho and midfield enforcer Andrei Prepelita all in their ranks, they’re a truly top-rate side. Brendan Rodgers will be hoping his side can avoid a trip to Bulgaria for the time being.
Difficulty rating: 5/5
FC Copenhagen (Denmark)
Impressive home form saw Byens Hold stroll to the Superliga title last season, but on the continent, the Danes’ displays have been rather less imperious in recent years.
Despite reaching the Champions League last 16 back in 2010-11, the last two seasons have seen them lose three European games by a four-goal margin and exit last season’s Europa League to Czech lightweights Jablonec.
However, good summer business, like the signing of prolific striker Andrija Pavlovic from Cukaricki, means they head into this season looking stronger than they have over the last few years. If they face the Hoops, expect a tough and tight-run game.
Difficulty rating: 4/5
Dundalk (Republic of Ireland)
Despite a superhuman effort to topple BATE Borisov in the last round, this is undoubtedly the tie which Hoops fans will be hoping for – and not just those devotees based in Ireland.
After all, Dundalk had won just two of their last nine European ties before this season, and those both against minnows from Luxembourg. For their part, Celtic have played opponents from the Republic of Ireland in European competition on four occasions, winning all four ties, recording seven wins and a draw in the process.
With the Hoops having also snapped up the likes of Moussa Dembele, Kolo Toure and Kristoffer Ajer this summer, while Dundalk’s star man Richie Towell has exited for Brighton & Hove Albion, this tie could only realistically go one way.
Difficulty rating: 1/5
The Champions League draw takes place at 11:00 tomorrow morning. Hoops fans will certainly be hoping they’re booking flights to Dundalk and not Bulgaria.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing