RIGHT now, the football community as a whole have their eyes on an international competition that can define legacies for generations. And, while Scotland failed to qualify for that tournament, they still have a chance to make it into the main draw of a similarly important international competition at the club level.
With matches coming up against Armenian side Alashkert, Celtic should be able to move a step closer to the biggest club competition in the world.
The two legs against Alashkert are the start of a slightly more difficult Champions League qualification process. Instead of the previous format of the qualification stage, teams are now competing for just four spots in the group stage. This is the result of a change that puts 26 teams into the group stage automatically, up four spots from the previous amount of 22 teams.
With half as many qualification spots available, there will be one more qualifying round, which means that Celtic will have to play another solid opponent if they want to get to the Champions League.
Alashkert have already signalled that they will be doing everything in their power to get a win in this match. They will be moving the match to a 16,000-seat stadium, and making entry free for supporters to have a chance to cheer them to victory in the first leg against Celtic. This is where the Champions League experience comes into play for Celtic, who have played matches at Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona, and Manchester City over the last two seasons.
Most in the football world will be busy paying attention to the conclusion of the World Cup during the Champions League tie for Celtic. And, while the Scottish side will try to advance in the Champions League, England and Panama is the second game of the group stage for England in the competition Scotland would rather have a team in, the World Cup. The Three Lions are 1/6 at William Hill to win that game. And given the way that Panama played in their opening match, it’s unclear how England will fare in that contest.
In the Champions League qualifying round, however, Celtic will come into their match-up with Alashkert as the overwhelming favourites to advance. Alashkert have advanced past the first qualifying round of the Champions League twice in club history. However, both of those qualifying round wins came against Andorran side Santa Coloma. A team with the quality of Celtic is a whole different ballgame.
Alashkert did manage to defeat another Scottish side in a qualifying tournament in 2015, when they took a two-legged tie over St. Johnstone in the first round of Europa League qualifying on away goals.
More than the result of this two-legged tie will be important for Celtic. It will be interesting to see what kind of momentum they can build heading into the later rounds of the qualifying tournament, which will feel much less like a foregone conclusion than what feels like a bit of a warm-up against the squad from Armenia.