The season has only just finished, but with the draw for Celtic’s European qualifiers to come in less that three weeks, it certainly isn’t too soon to talk about their chances.
Arguably the most important games of their season, the summer qualifiers are often a battle from the first whistle to the last as Celtic face champions from nations all across the continent. With little time to prepare and often being up against opponents in the middle of their season, the Bhoys needs to ensure they are at the top of their game in order to progress to the group stages.
Here are the FIVE players that Celtic will need to perform if they have any chance of making it back to Europe’s biggest stage…
In two seasons Craig Gordon has made more appearances for Celtic than he did in five seasons for Sunderland. Plagued by injury issues in the North East of England, it looked for a time like Gordon would have to retire before the age of 30.
A two year break from the game ended when Celtic came calling and the Scotland international hasn’t looked back since. A number of key saves both domestically (as seen above) and in Europe have ensured that he’s often the first name on the team sheet. He’s only missed 10 games in the 114 the Bhoys have played since he arrived.
There’s no doubting that attackers will breach the defence at some point over the European qualifying campaign and if Celtic are to make the group stages, he must ensure he’s there to meet the challenge.
Earlier this week we charted Leigh Griffiths’ rise to become Celtic’s most important player by far in the 2015/16 campaign. While his prowess in front of goal had never been questioned domestically, there had been some quarters that questioned his ability to make a mark in Europe.
He scored his first European goals for Celtic last summer and had four by the time Celtic were knocked out of the Europa League. Two of those came in a vital game at home to Malmo in the Champions League playoff, putting to bed the notion he doesn’t have the quality to fire Celtic into the groups.
He’s primed to have another blockbuster season in green and white and supporters will be hoping that starts sooner rather than later in the campaign with so much at stake this summer.
In just 18 appearances for the Hoops since joining in January, Erik Sviatchenko has already established himself as a leader and a fans favourite at Celtic. He was even handed the captain’s armband for the night when the Bhoys faced St Johnstone at the tail end of the season, a testament to how important he’s become in the dressing room and squad.
His goal against Rangers in the Scottish Cup semi-final showed that he has an eye for the big occasion and with plenty of those this summer, that mentality is more than welcome at Celtic Park.
Strong in the tackle, strong in the air and rarely flustered, he could offer the defensive stability Celtic need in order to negotiate the tough summer schedule.
The Israeli international found his feet as a Celtic player this season in the heart of Celtic’s midfield, making more appearances than any other player in the middle of the park.
While typically he doesn’t catch the eye, until he batters in one of those long range efforts we see from time to time, his cool head, composure and technical ability are vital in Celtic’s possession heavy set-up.
He’s the metronome that keeps things ticking for the Scottish champions and if he’s playing well, the chances are the team is too. With energy sapping away trips a trademark of Champions League qualifying he’s going to be vital in ensuring the Bhoys stay on top of the opposition.
Patrick Roberts will get a career first taste of European football this summer but don’t let that lack of experience put you in any doubt that he’ll be a difference maker in these ties.
He has 15 goals in 39 appearances within England’s youth set-up and was named in the team of tournament in the European U-17 Championships of 2014. Proof that he’s a first rate performer for his age group.
As shown in his short time at Celtic, he’s starting to show that he’s coming of age and these qualifiers are his best chance to date to make a name for himself in the game. With dogged defences to break down, Celtic will need every bit of his guile and skill to score the goals required to make it through.