Neil Lennon takes his Celtic side to Bosnia this evening to commence what he hopes will be a long qualifying campaign – with the prize of a Champions League group spot at the end of it. The Hoops won’t have things all their own way, however, against opposition that may be unheralded in the UK but who won a league and cup double domestically last season.
The Scottish side are in the middle of a rebuild, and come into this game with question marks over the future of a few of their players. They’ve not been quiet themselves in the transfer market, however, and this match may see one or two of the new arrivals making their full debut. As well as an opposition that will be heartily backed by a partisan crowd, Celtic must make sure they overcome the lack of competitive match practice that comes from this game taking place in early July.
FK Sarajevo vs Celtic Prediction: FK Sarajevo 1-2 Celtic
Games like this are always exceptionally difficult to predict. These sides have never met, it’s too early in the season to have a real handle on how teams are gelling and, with the best will in the world, Celtic’s record on the road in Europe, even against weaker teams, is not one that they’re proud of. Nonetheless, they should have enough about them to take a lead back to Glasgow, as long as they keep focused for 90 minutes and don’t underestimate the side they are facing. A 30,000+ crowd is expected at the Asim Ferhatovic Hase Stadium, and they’ll be noisy from the off.
Our recommended tip: Both Teams To Score
Most bookies are approaching this game as something of a foregone conclusion, which with an expensively-assembled Celtic side and a relatively unknown opposition may make sense. However, even the most partisan Hoops fan would admit that the club has a history of losing preventable goals on its travels. It’s hard to say which defensive line-up Lennon will choose, but every centre-back at the club “has a mistake in him”, and the Celts boss is unlikely to start with new £7m stopper Christopher Jullien due to the Frenchman’s lack of match practice. Though Celtic may win, Paddy Power’s 5/4 (2.25) odds on both teams scoring seems like a bet worth taking.
This will be the first meeting between these sides, making it difficult to draw from history when analysing potential outcomes. However, Sarajevo are not without European pedigree and it’s important Celtic don’t get drawn into the same trap as Belgian side Genk in 2007. The Bosnian side won 2-1 in Belgium and progressed to the play-off round on away goals where they were beaten 4-0 on aggregate by Dynamo Kiev. Celtic participated in the group stage in 2017, but last season were eliminated in the penultimate qualifying round by Greece’s AEK.
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Players to watch: Vladan Kovačević & Callum McGregor
The one current Bosnian international in the Sarajevo squad is 21-year-old goalkeeper Vladan Kovačević. The highly-rated custodian broke through into the first team last season and a series of impressive performances helped his club to the league title, as well as catching the attention of national team manager Robert Prosinečki. Celtic will have to be on their toes to beat him tonight, and the big stage of a Champions League night will be a chance for the youngster to add to his growing reputation.
For many people, the heartbeat of Celtic’s recent domestic dominance has been McGregor, whose bursts forward from midfield contribute goals, assists and tempo. His consistency of performance makes him indispensable on nights such as this. A stalwart at the club under three consecutive managers, McGregor has been linked with moves to the Premier League, and he has scored at every level for Celtic. Should they need a goal to settle the nerves tonight, he’s perhaps the most likely source.