Champions League: Shaktyor Karaganda vs. Celtic Preview and Prediction
Having successfully negotiated their passage through the previous two rounds against Cliftonville and Elfsborg respectively, Celtic once more find themselves just two games away from a return to the group stages of the Champions League.
But before thoughts turn to those massive European nights at Celtic Park against the Continent's finest, Neil Lennon's side know there is a job to be done against slightly more modest opposition and that they will need to be entirely focused on their game if they hope to progress.
Strangely enough, if Celtic do want to make it two years in a row at European football's top table, they'll have to travel to Central Asia to get there—the industrial mining town of Karaganda in Eastern Kazakhstan to be precise, some 4,086 miles from Glasgow and across the whole of Europe.
Shakhtyor Karaganda (the name Shakhtyor is derived from the word for pitmen), Celtic's opponents for the playoff round which kicks off on Tuesday night, come from further east than Iraq, Iran or Saudi Arabia, making it something of a trip into the unknown compared to their visits to north Belfast and southern Sweden. Shaktyor will be hoping that by the time the visitors arrive, all that travelling will have taken its toll and will have had an adverse effect on their preparation.
But first things first—who are Shakhtyor Karaganda? And how come nobody's ever heard of them before?
Although Kazakhstan secured its independence in 1992 and became members of FIFA two years later, they spent most of the next decade as members of the AFC and only joined UEFA in 2002. Shakhtyor Karaganda made their European bow in 2006 with an inconspicuous exit at the hands of Latvian side MTZ Ripo (6-4 on aggregate), and failed for the most part on subsequent attempts to make any serious inroads into European football—until this season.
A shock first-round win over BATE Borisov, who of course played in the group stages last season and scored a shock win over eventual winners Bayern Munich, raised a few eyebrows, and they went on to defeat Albanian champions FC Skenderbeu to set up this tie with Celtic—arguably the most important ever played by a team from Kazakhstan. A victory will see them become the first Kazakh side ever to make it to the group stages of the Champions League, but even a defeat would make history, qualifying them for the group stages of the Europa League, a feat which no side from Kazakhstan has ever achieved.
Shakhtyor's undoubted star player is club legend Andrei Finonchenko, a local hero who came through the youth ranks and has since scored 116 goals, putting him second place in the club's list of all-time top goalscorers behind the seemingly untouchable record of 182 scored by Nikolai Igamberdiev.
He's played in all four matches of their campaign up until now (in fact, he's been on the field for all but seven minutes of those games) and their manager, Viktor Kumykov, will know just how important a player he'll be if they are going to be able to match Celtic or pull off an upset.
Elsewhere in the squad, 22-year-old forward Sergei Khizhnichenko has bagged three goals already in this season's qualifying rounds and was in the Kazakhstan squad for their World Cup qualifiers against Germany back in March alongside teammates Aleksandr Mokin, Maksat Baizhanov, and Zhambyl Kukeev, who some may remember scored against England back in 2008.
Very few of their team have much or indeed any European experience, nor do they have a lot of players who've played in Europe's top leagues, but the pressure will all be on Celtic to perform, and if Shakhtyor can unsettle their highly rated opponents early on and stop Celtic from getting into a rhythm, then they might just have a chance.
Tuesday's match promises to be a tricky one for Celtic, but if their current run in the qualifying stages is anything to go by, they should have enough about them to be able to progress.
They haven't conceded a goal in their last four qualifying ties (eight matches in total), and so long as they're able to come away with at least a draw from Karaganda, it would be difficult to see them being unable to finish off the job in front of their home fans at Parkhead in the second leg.
Goals have proved difficult to come by of late as Neil Lennon struggles to fill the void left by Gary Hooper's departure for Norwich City, but even if Georgios Samaras has yet to find the net this season in the league, his recent form for Celtic in Europe, particularly away from home, will be reason for optimism.
An early goal would go far to settling any nerves, as it did last season at the same stage away to Helsingborgs (Kris Commons opened the scoring in the second minute) and although they would need to hold off Shakhtyor for the rest of the game, it would open the play up a bit and might lead to a second later on. 2-0 Celtic.
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