Europa League can provide unexpected Celtic cheer
Whilst commendable in its aim of giving teams from smaller nations a nibble of the Champions League cherry, this year's revamped qualifying process did Celtic no favours.
UEFA's decision to shepherd the likes of Debrecen and Levski Sofia away from the big boys guaranteed Celtic would face a tough final qualifier once Dinamo Moscow had been dispatched. They were handed the stiffest test of all and their 5-1 aggregate defeat to Arsenal raised few eyebrows. It will be scant consolation to their fans that another piece of Platini officialdom - the introduction of extra referees to monitor play from behind the goal - should ensure no Eduardo-esque acts of deceit in the Europa League.
A group containing Hamburg, Rapid Vienna and Thursday's opponents Hapoel Tel Aviv represents a fairly formidable challenge for Tony Mowbray's men. Hamburg sit unbeaten at the top of the Bundesliga whilst Rapid conquered Martin O'Neill's Aston Villa in their qualifier.
Add in a lengthy trip across two time zones to play a game in a baking hot Middle East and the process of qualifying would seem far from straightforward for Celtic. Whilst Thursday's match in Tel Aviv represents Celtic's best hopes of securing an away victory, it's safe to say a trip to Israel was not high on Mowbray's preferred list of destinations prior to the draw.
They travel in good form domestically. Four SPL games have yielded 10 points, with only Dundee United's spirited showing at the weekend preventing a perfect start for the Bhoys but Mowbray will be have to make do without his big name summer signing for the majority of the group campaign.
An injury to Marc Antoine-Fortune means that Celtic's goal threat will primarily be carried by Scott McDonald. It's a responsibility the Australian has manfully assumed since his arrival from Motherwell and the stocky striker has risen admirably to the challenge of European football with vital strikes against Manchester United, AC Milan and Dinamo Moscow.
Mowbray may opt for a lone striker role for McDonald but if Celtic's games so far are anything to go by it's likely a chance or two will come his way. Mowbray's attacking ideas have been firmly stamped on his Celtic side and Yossi Abuksis, the Hapoel Tel Aviv scout present during Saturday's lively draw with Dundee United, expressed his surprise at the frequency with which Celtic's full-backs, Danny Fox and Andreas Hinkel, supported the home side's attacks down the flanks.
It's a potential Achilles heel the Israelis will certainly look to exploit - as Dinamo Moscow did so successfully in the first leg of the qualifier at Celtic Park - and Mowbray will be mindful that Hapoel have players such as Nemanja Vucicevic and Zurab Menteshashvli who can cause his side problems.
Mowbray will be hopeful that Scott Brown - who has impressed on the international stage in recent weeks - will be able to take up his midfield berth (following the recurrence of an ankle injury whilst playing for Scotland against Macedonia) and the return of Aiden McGeady, who missed Saturday's game through suspension, is certainly a boon for the Celtic manager.
Hapoel are no strangers to British teams and both Spurs and Rangers have played here in recent seasons with Celtic's great rivals beaten 2-1 on their way to a 5-2 aggregate victory. John Barnes, in the days when Inverness Caledonian Thistle were but a headline writer's imagination away, triumphed here in 1999 with his Celtic side.
A decade on, Celtic's hosts will be looking to reverse that outcome. Hapoel,like Celtic, are unbeaten domestically this season and sit in sixth place in the Israeli league. Their current coach, Eli Guttman, has seen his side overcome IFK Gothenburg and FK Teplice to reach the group stages (although their win in Sweden was marred by two of their players being held for questioning after serious allegations were made against them). He is able to field the Israeli player of the year, the Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama with fellow African, the Ghanaian striker Samuel Yeboah, presenting the main threa to the Celtic defence after weighing in with 15 goals last season.
This, though, is a game Celtic will be expected to win. Away victories in Europe had become something of a hazy recollection for their support prior to the 0-2 win in Moscow but the inevitable lowering in the calibre of opponent the Europa League presents automatically raises expectations.
In truth the Europa League is probably the right level for this Celtic side and, although the financial hit of missing out on the Champions League is undoubtedly a blow, the possibility of an extended run in the Europa League will appeal to fans.
Celtic's fabled home Champions League record was beginning to look slightly less secure when held up to recent scrutiny and Mowbray may even be relieved of the opportunity to bed in his ideas and his players in the somewhat less demanding arena of the Europa League. By reaching the final of the UEFA Cup in recent years, both Celtic and Rangers have proved that the second tier of European competition can throw up unexpected delights for Scottish clubs. Celtic will be hoping Thursday's game is the start of a similarly lengthy stay.