With every passing weekend we get a greater understanding of the sides that will stand in the way of Celtic and the Champions League group stage. The Hoops will once again have to get to get over four hurdles if they’re to make it back to the promised land. We fell at the third of them last year, coming a cropper against Greek champions AEK Athens.
This year’s tournament looks particularly daunting and we may find ourselves with a nightmare draw in the very first round. Romanian back-to-back champions Cluj are potential first round opponents. The Feroviarii clinched another title ahead of Steaua Bucharest this year and will be looking to improve on their poor performance in this year’s Europa League.
Cluj played in the group stage of the Champions League not so long ago so will have experience of the big occasion.
Who else could Celtic face?
So far, eight other teams are confirmed to be unseeded in the first round. They are Ferencvaros (Hungary), Kalju Nomme (Estonia), Partizani Tirana (Albania), Valur (Iceland), Linfield (Northern Ireland), HB Torshavn (Faroe Islands), Riga FC (Latvia) and Saburtalo (Georgia).
Seven more teams are yet to be confirmed while the first round may also be drawn regionally. This would make Celtic less likely to face a trip to Romania.
A tough ask
This will perhaps be the hardest year in recent memory for the Hoops to get into the Champions League proper. A new manager, new players and four gruelling rounds over eight weeks isn’t a good recipe for qualification.
That won’t remove any of the pressure though. Celtic will still be seeded for all rounds so fans will expect to see qualification. Anything less and the new manager could find himself under some early pressure. It really is the definition of a baptism of fire.