Did UEFA purposely keep Celtic and Linfield apart in Champions League?
Celtic found out their potential Champions League first qualifying round opponents on Monday and there was a little surprise. The Hoops will face either Valletta, Sarajevo, Sutjeska, Partizani or Saburtalo Tbilisi in their first two competitive matches of the new season.
All five will offer Neil Lennon’s men a decent sized trip and that hasn’t always been the case in the opening round of qualifiers. In previous years Celtic have ventured twice to Iceland and Northern Ireland and once to Gibraltar.
Last year, however, they were sent to farther-flung Armenia. And this year it’ll be a similar length journey. So what’s changed?
The Linfield experience
One of those aforementioned trips to Northern Ireland was against Linfield in 2017. The Belfast side are well known to have a close friendship with our great rivals in Glasgow so tensions were raised when the draw was made.
The two ties were completely one-sided with Celtic coming out 6-0 aggregate winners, but trouble flared in both encounters. Celtic originally refused tickets for the Windsor Park clash before allowing a small number of fans in. Our players had glass bottles and other missiles thrown at them and it was all just pretty ugly.
Nobody came out of the Linfield experience looking good and there was a big sigh of relief from both sides at the end of the tie.
What have UEFA done?
It looks entirely probable that UEFA have tried to avoid a repeat of the Celtic-Linfield powder keg fixture. They’ve done this by moving Celtic into a different region of the first round draw.
Linfield find themselves in another pot where they can play the champions of Wales, Republic of Ireland and Norway among others. Common sense would indicate that Celtic should be in this group with the other British and Scandinavian teams so it’s fair to assume the real reason for the switch is the experience in 2017.
It means that we’ll face a longer European trip although we could avoid a couple of the big hitters. In the first round at least.