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Celtic cope without 4 key players as UEFA Champions League qualifier parallels World Cup

Thursday 21st June 2018

While all eyes are on Russia and the World Cup, club football hasn't ceased to exist. The draws for the first and second qualifying rounds of next season's Champions League have taken place in Nyon, Switzerland.  

Teams from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland were involved in the draw. Each side learned their fate for the first qualifying round, which begins on 10 July, the same day as the first World Cup semi-final in Saint Petersburg.   

Crusaders, the champions of Northern Ireland, will play Bulgaria's Ludogorets, who made the group stage twice in the last four years. Representing the Republic of Ireland, Cork City will meet Poland's Legia Warsaw, who competed in last campaign's groups, even holding Real Madrid to a 3-3 draw. Both Irish teams will be extremely hard pushed to progress. 

The New Saints of Wales were handed a slightly more favourable tie against Macedonia's Shkendija, although they will still be underdogs. 

For Brendan Rodgers' Celtic, the draw has pitted them against Armenian outfit, Alashkert. The Bhoys are capable of winning the tie and progressing to face either Iceland's Valur or Norway's Rosenborg in the next round.  

Celtic, though, must play those season-defining games at such a ridiculously early stage. Their campaign ended only a month ago. The World Cup will still be ongoing when Rodgers' men begin competitive action.  

Celtic's big-club status is enhanced by lifting the European Cup, albeit 51 years ago. They reached the group stage the last two consecutive seasons under Rodgers. Although results haven't been as good as expected, there are signs of progress.   

Two years ago, Celtic propped up their group. However, last time out they finished third, moving into the Europa League before falling to Zenit Saint Petersburg. 

UEFA has made it clear that the main priority is the big cash cow offered by Europe's most lucrative leagues. In the 2018-19 Champions League, the top four clubs from Spain, Italy, England and Germany all receive a pass to the group stage. With only eight places still up for grabs - four each from the champions and non-champions route - teams like Celtic will find it more difficult to qualify. 

With Rodgers' side due to start their European campaign in three weeks' time, it seems almost certain that they will be without four players currently at the World Cup. Tom Rogic, Cristian Gamboa, Dedryck Boyata and Mikael Lustig are all in Russia, representing Australia, Costa Rica, Belgium and Sweden respectively. With each one staying for at least another week, they will then need further rest before returning to training.   

When considering the fact all the major domestic leagues and Champions League finished earlier to accommodate the World Cup, it proves UEFA thinks little of the clubs deemed easy to replace. 

There's no doubt Celtic should beat Alashkert. However, with the encounter coming so early in the season and the Scottish champions without four players, three of whom are first-team regulars, the gap suddenly closes between the sides. 

Throughout the European schedule, there are a lot of spaces between game weeks. Could UEFA have tightened that up to allow a later start for the teams missing key players due to international commitments?

Realistically, UEFA won't do anything to address the problem. All the organization truly cares about is the millions who pay television subscriptions around the world. Celtic Park generates a special atmosphere on European nights, but matches such as Manchester City against Napoli in the soulless Etihad rakes in more money. Ultimately, that's the be-all and end-all for Europe's governing body.   

Gerry Johnston

I am a 33-year-old sports writer from Ireland who enjoys watching European football. My main focus is La Liga, but I do keep a close eye on all of the major leagues throughout the world.


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