If the Champions League represents the summit ridge of European football, its qualifiers are a clawing scramble up a sheer cliff by climbers bent on dislodging one another from the handholds. Celtic’s campaign has seen them get beyond Sarajevo of Bosnia on a 5-2 aggregate and the Estonians of Nomme Kalju by 7-0 over two legs and this evening they must outdistance CFR Cluj, whom they lead on the away goals rule after last week’s 1-1 draw in Romania.
Most of the omens point to a Celtic success, which would put them into a play-off against Slavia Prague for a place in the group stage. Neil Lennon, though, is too experienced to take much notice of runes, despite a start to the domestic league campaign which has seen the Hoops score 12 goals in their opening two fixtures.
Asked how wary he was of opponents managed by the foxy Dan Petrescu, Lennon said: “Very – they scored two against Maccabi away, which isn’t an easy thing to do. They rested the team again at the weekend, so there’ll be a freshness to them and it will mean a lot to them, as it does to us.
“We’re looking forward to the game and obviously at Celtic Park we’re looking to strike home that advantage. Again, it can flip very quickly so we take nothing for granted but we’re delighted with the way we’ve played – and the goals, obviously.
“We look a threat and we’re making good chances, so we look to do the same again but we’re mindful of keeping a clean sheet.”
Petrescu is shameless about gamesmanship and in his utterances prior to the return leg he has likened Celtic to Barcelona – “they have young players and we have old players” – and attempted to put pressure on Tuesday's match official, Andris Treimanis of Latvia, when he said: “I just hope the refereeing is fair.
“It’s normal when you play Celtic in the Champions League and they are at home, that the referee gives them an extra 10 per cent of the decisions.”
Lennon’s response was to the point. “Certainly not in Europe,” he said. “I’ve been really pleased with the referees’ performances in all the qualifiers, to the point where we’ve not had to talk about them.
“There were a couple of things in Sarajevo and in Romania last week where maybe, a year or two ago, would have warranted a red rather than a yellow. Our mindset will be good. We’ll try to take the referee out of the game and just focus on the way we want to play.”
The scoring deluge which has inaugurated Celtic’s domestic campaign was not anticipated widely, but Lennon attributed it to small changes of emphasis. “We try to get the ball into forward areas a little bit quicker, shoot more and shoot quicker,” he said. “Sometimes we were looking for the perfect goal but every goal is perfect in its own way. We’re getting that from Ryan Christie, James Forrest is pitching in and Callum McGregor’s got a couple already. The strikers are in good form.
“We don’t take what Leigh Griffiths does for granted because it’s a natural talent that he is, plus Odsonne Edouard has been in fantastic form in the last couple of games. We’re just trying to keep them bubbling along and we know the significance of the game.”
The likelihood – because it is a familiar template – is that Cluj will sit deeper and double mark to deny Celtic’s wide players, while trying to suck Brown and McGregor forward so that the Romanians can counter attack in search of a goal that would annul the hosts’ advantage. Cluj’s opener on their own ground came from a missed interception by Lewis Morgan and a dozy response by Boli Bolingoli, the man chosen to fill the sizeable gap at left-back since Kieran Tierney’s £25 million move to Arsenal.
Olivier Ntcham could come in to add a forcible presence, now that he has retreated from his recently declared position that he is too good for Scottish football, a status that was not reinforced by bids for his services from more glamorous leagues. Lennon denied that he treated the player to a tirade, preferring to describe the process as ‘an open chat’.
He expanded on the consequence when he said of Ntcham: “He’s training really well and he seems happy and settled. We just want more of the same because we’ve got a hell of a player there. He’s got real flair and ability.
“You saw that on Saturday. At times he’s too good a player to leave out. He just needs to be consistent now and, to be fair, he made a really good contribution when he came on in Romania too. He will definitely come into contention.”
Celtic(probable) (4-2-3-1): Bain; Ajer, Elhamed, Simunovic, Bolingoli; Brown, McGregor; Forrest, Ntcham, Johnston; Edouard.
CFR Cluj (probable) (4-4-2): Arlauskis; Susic, Vinicius, Burca, Camora; Deac, Luis Aurelio, Bordeianu, Dokovic; Rondon, Omrani.
Referee: Andris Treimanis, Latvia.