After an eight and a half hour journey, Glasgow Celtic touched down in Azerbaijan tired but ready for the challenge ahead. Ronny Deila’s side will need to quickly shake off any jet lag they may be under as they prepare to face Azerbaijan champions Qarabag in today’s crunch second league Champions League qualifier. With only a slender 1-0 lead from the first leg in Glasgow, Deila will be instructing his team to go out and find that crucial away goal that will surely send Celtic through. Concerns about the state of the pitch or the heat will need to be put to one side as the Scottish champions look to progress to the group stage. The pitch at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium has been badly damaged by a recent heat wave in the country and looks patchy in places with as much as 30% of it classified as unplayable but Qarabag manager Gurban Gurbanov is in no mood to be apologetic about it stating there is little the club can do at this stage.Whether he has a point is up for debate but the game will go ahead regardless.
Celtic can not afford to sit back against a very technically strong Qarabag side. With pace to burn upfront through the electric Brazilian Reynaldo and the dynamic link up play of Spanish midfielder Dani Quintana, Qarabag could be a threat straight from the kick off. They will be looking to snatch an early goal in the hopes that Celtic have a stuttering start to the game as their players adapt to the humidity. Qarabag have never qualified for the group stages of the Champions League, narrowly missing last year thanks to an away defeat against Salzburg. But Baku is not an easy place to come as many teams have found out in the past with Qarabag notching victories against Club Brugge, Wisla Krakow, Rosenborg and Salzburg in recent years. They will be looking to add Celtic’s scalp to their collection in what should be a frustrating night for the Scottish champions.
Celtic manager Ronny Deila will not say it but there is a lot resting on tonight’s game and in particular qualification to the group stages. Besides the obvious financial advantages to Celtic through playing regularly in Europe’s top club competition, there are other key reasons to want to compete like holding on to their best players. Winning the Scottish Premiership has become somewhat pedestrian with few teams able to put up a constant long-term fight for the title, especially as Rangers continues its exile. So Celtic rely on European football to keep its star players like Virgil Van Dijk interested. The dutch defender has been a revelation for the club since his £2.6m move from FC Groningen two years ago. Stunning displays and assured defending has led to several Premiership scouts taking notice. Rumours that Southampton are lining up a £7m bid for the player appear to be accurate as they ramp up their search for a new central defender.
Ronald Koeman was hoping to make the loan signing of Toby Alderweireld permanent but was beaten to his signature by Tottenham. That was followed by the long-term injury to Romanian defender Florin Gardos which has left Southampton drastically short in the centre back position. With money to spend, the Saints have identified the tall dutch defender as their number one target and are preparing a bid despite Celtic not wanting to sell the player. However failure to qualify for the Champions League could see Virgil request that the move be permitted as he strives to better himself as a footballer. Holding on to Van Dijk is not impossible for Celtic but it will be made harder if all they can offer him is football in Scotland. Victory today in Azerbaijan will go along way in securing the Dutchman for another season at least making the result in Baku that more important.