- Expect Fireworks
Celtic drawn away from home in the first leg of a Champions League qualifier, versus Linfield or SP La Fiorita
Celtic will play the winners of the Linfield v SP La Fiorita tie, in their first Champions League qualifying game. Celtic will know their confirmed opponents by the end of July 5th at the latest, with the first qualifying ties to be played on 27th & 28th June and 4th & 5th July.
As Celtic's ball was drawn second, the first leg will be away from home, with the destination being Belfast or San Marino.
Linfield will be favourites for the first round qualifier, which has the potential to set up a hotly anticipated match in Belfast. With the first tie being scheduled to be played on 11th or 12th July, it coincides with the Orange marching season in Northern Ireland. In the event of this match taking place, expect an incredibly unpleasant and potentially dangerous atmosphere for Celtic fans. Hopefully, it will be well policed and without incident. However, the more cynical amongst us would probably agree that is unlikely.
Having considered that, the most important thing for Celtic is progress towards qualifying for the Champions League group stages, for the second season in a row. Qualification at the first attempt was a great achievement for Brendan Rodgers and his side. The experience gained in those tough Champions League group stages, in a so called 'Group of Death', helped provide the Hoops squad with plenty of invaluable experience at the top level. One of the benefits of this was the squad gaining a level of self belief that saw them become the Invincibles, domestically.
Last season's qualification saw the Celts undertake trips to Gibraltar, Kazakhstan and Israel, with each tie posing a different threat to Celtic's qualification hopes. There was the shock defeat to Lincoln Red Imps in Gibraltar, with early season rustiness and an unfamiliar pitch playing it's part in an unlikely victory for the Gibraltar side. A return leg at Celtic Park saw goals from Lustig, Griffiths and Roberts, ensuring smooth qualification to the next round.
What followed was a last minute penalty win at home (courtesy of Moussa Dembele), against Astana and a resolute 1-1 draw in Kazakhstan, to set up a final qualification tie against Hapoel Be'er Sheva of Israel. The highlight of the qualification campaign, a 5-2 win at home, in which Celtic left the Be'er Sheva players looking shell shocked, was one of the early signs of the positive impact Brendan Rodgers had had, since arriving at the club. A stunning first half from Celtic saw them go 3-0 up before the interval, before conceding two early goals in the second half to send a degree of worry throughout the crowd, but goals from Dembele and Brown ensured a vital first leg victory. The trip to Israel ended in a 2-0 defeat for the Hoops, but a penalty save from Craig Gordon ensured that the first leg result was enough to see Celtic reach the group stages.
This time around, confidence amongst the squad and support is sky high and rightly so. Brendan Rodgers' Celtic are the first club in history to secure an unbeaten domestic treble.
Let's take a look at our potential opponents:
SP La Fiorita
Founded 50 years ago in 1967, the Sanmarinese club are based in Montegiardino. Their home colours are white and yellow, with the away strip being blue. They have been winners of the top league in San Marino on 4 occasions, most recently this year. They have also finished runners up in the league on four occasions, as well as having won the Coppa Titano (the national cup competition of San Marino) on four occasions.
Due it's tiny size, clubs in San Marino do not have their own home stadiums. All European matches are played at the Stadio Olimpico in Serravalle. It is otherwise known as the San Marino Stadium and it has a capacity of 6,664.
The club has yet to record a single European victory, so it is unlikely that SP La Fiorita will become Celtic's opponents.
Linfield are a semi-professional football club based in Belfast. They were founded in 1886 and play their home games at Windsor Park, which has a capacity of 18,167. The Northern Ireland national team also play their home games at Windsor Park. They play in Blue, white and red, with their away strip being white and blue. Despite the 18,000+ capacity, Linfield only manage to attact an average home crowd of just over 2000 people.
They are historically the most dominant side in Northern Irish league football and they hold several domestic records. Their main rivals are Glentoran FC, also of Belfast. The local derby between the two sides is the biggest match in Northern Irish football.
Linfield have 52 league titles and 43 Irish Cups. They have featured regularly in the qualifying rounds of European competition, but haven't gotten past a 2nd Qualifying round.
There will be no love lost between the two sets of supporters if Celtic do face the Belfast club, which is sure to guarantee an incredibly hostile atmosphere.