It seems barely conceivable that with the World Cup still in full swing Celtic are about to embark on the new season less than 8 weeks after their Scottish Cup triumph against Motherwell. Yet, due to Scotland’s abysmal UEFA coefficient ranking and the restructuring of Champions League Qualifying, that is exactly what will happen on Tuesday evening as the Celts take on Alashkert of Armenia in the first of four potential qualifying rounds for the Champions League.
However, if you think that’s bad, spare a thought for Hungarian champions Videoton – now MOL Vidi FC – who have had less than 6 weeks lay-off between finishing the 2017/18 Hungarian season and their first-round qualifier against Dudelange of Luxembourg.
Despite the short rest period, both Celtic and Mol Vidi go into their respective first qualifying round ties as favourites to progress against less fancied opposition but, as we’ve seen in the past – and witnessed more than once in the current World Cup – it would be foolish to completely write off the opposition before the first leg has even kicked-off as even the smallest dogs will have its day in the sun at some point; see Lincoln Red Imps as the prime example.
Here’s a quick look at what lies ahead in the First Qualifying for Celtic and Videoton, Champions of my adopted homeland, Hungary.
ALASHKERT Vs, CELTIC
Alashkert is the current dominant force in Armenian football having won the 6-team Bardsragujn Chumb in each of the previous three seasons. In 2015 the club made their first forays into European football, defeating St. Johnstone in their Europa League First Qualifying Round encounter, before falling to Kairat of Kazakhstan in the second Qualifying Round.
With little in the way of European pedigree, Alashkert will most likely fall into the bracket of unknown quantity for the vast majority of the Celtic support, however, they can rest assured that Brendan Rodgers, Chris Davies and co will have done their research and have the Bhoys thoroughly prepped in advance of Tuesday night’s first leg in Yaravan.
For what’s worth, transfermarkt.com values the Alashkert squad at €4million with Serbian goalkeeper Ognjen Cancarevic and Armenian International midfielder Artak Yedigaryan the most valuable players at €300,000.
As an aside, Alashkert has entered into co-operation agreements with Brazilian sides Botafogo and Fluminense, however, Celtic need not worry of having to face a Samba overload as these agreements do not appear to have seen an influx of Brazilian superstars swapping Rio for Armenia.
Celtic will approach the games against Alashkert with a hefty feeling of cautious optimism, especially coming off the back of the demolition job carried out on Shamrock Rovers in Saturday’s friendly where Moussa Dembele and Odsonne Edouard were paired in a twin strike force.
Unlike last season, Celtic go into their Champions League Qualifiers with striking options aplenty; Dembele, Edouard, and Griffiths all fit and battling for a starting berth. That alone should give Hoops fans confidence they will have too much firepower to overcome their less illustrious opponents.
Defensively, however, Celtic will be without the services of Lustig, Boyata, and Gamboa due to their World Cup participation; Boyata, of course, can prepare for Belgium’s semi-final encounter against France by cheering on his Celtic teammates, thanks to the day’s big game kicking off two hours before the World Cup semi-final.
The absence of Celtic’s World Cup defenders will give Rodgers a few decisions to make with Anthony Ralston or Jack Hendry potential deputies at right back in flat back four, and Marvin Compper coming into contention at centre back in place of Boyata in either a three or four man defence.
In midfield, Tom Rogic will also miss out due to his World Cup exertions with Australia, opening the door for Ryan Christie or Lewis Morgan to perhaps stake an early season claim for a starting berth.
All in all, Celtic’s strength in depth and squad quality should see the Scottish Champions progress to the Second Qualifying Round with some gas to spare.
DUDELANGE Vs. MOL VIDI
First up for Hungarian Champions Videton is Dudelange of Luxembourg. Unlike Alashkert, Dudelange does have a European history, of sorts, having taken part in European completion since the 1993/94 season when they were dumped out of the old Cup Winners Cup at the Qualifying Round to Maccabi Haifa. In fact, the following season, Dudelange met Hungarian opposition for the first time at the same stage of the Cup Winners Cup, losing 12-2 on aggregate to Ferencvaros.
Since their European debut, Dudelange has won only 9 of 52 games in European competition, progressing to the next round on just four occasions; including making it through two qualifying rounds of the 2012/13 Champions League Qualifiers, knocking out Red Bull Salzburg before falling to NK Maribor.
Dudelange boasts a cosmopolitan squad with thirteen nationalities represented, including three current Luxembourgian Internationals. Despite that, Dudelange is not exactly a side filled with household names and transfermarkt.com values the squad at €3.2 million; German midfield duo Mario Pokar and Dominik Stolz being the highest valued at €200,000.
VIDEOTON (MOL VIDI)
A club of many previous names, Videoton FC undertook another change of moniker during the summer by becoming MOL Vidi due to their sponsorship by the Hungarian Oil and Gas multi-national MOL; the change coming despite supporter unrest and dissatisfaction at the move.
Only last month Vidi won the NB1 title for the just the third time in their history and are aiming to make the Champions League Group Stages for the first time ever.
Spearheaded by the dynamic Serbian triumvirate of Danko Lazovic and the Scepovic brothers Marko and Stefan, Vidi has the potential to be a dangerous attacking force and one that, as with Celtic, should be too strong a proposition for the First Qualifying Round opponents.
Lead at the back by the classy Brazilian-born Hungarian International Paolo Vinicius, the vastly experienced Roland Juhasz, and former French youth-International Loic Nego, Vidi is more than capable of holding their own defensively at this stage of the competition.
Last season Vidi progressed to the Play-Off round of Europa League Qualifying, defeating Bordeaux en route, before falling to Partizan. While unlikely, the club from Szekesfehervar will be looking to go one better in Europe’s premier competition. They should at least make it passed Dudelange.
Thoughts and comments welcomed, as always.