Celtic should edge tight playoff with Astana
Bhoys can take advantage to Kazakhstan
Champions League playoff first leg
BT Sport 2, 7.45pm Tuesday
Twelve months after Celtic scraped past Astana on their way to a place in the Champions League group stage the sides meet again – and once again we should expect a tight encounter which the Scots should win.
It needed an injury-time penalty from Moussa Dembele for Celtic to see off the Kazakh champions in the third qualifying round in last season’s competition, winning 2-1 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate.
Astana proved obdurate opponents then and they are unlikely to be pushovers now.
Don’t expect a massacre but do expect pressure to eventually tell for Celtic. Odds of 4-9 about the hosts make no great appeal but evens that the home team win in a game featuring no more than three goals seems a decent alternative.
You can pretty much read the script for this one, certainly based on events at Celtic Park last term and again in Astana’s trip to Warsaw this season.
Celtic had three times as many shots during last season’s qualifier against Stanimir Stoilov’s men, who only had 34 percent possession.
In Poland against Legia Warsaw in the previous round this season, Astana were on the back foot from the off. They had just 28 per cent possession, one shot on target over 90 minutes but lost only narrowly, 1-0, to go through 3-2 on aggregate.
Brendan Rodgers says his Celtic side are a well drilled machine, calling them a ‘one-brain’ team, but the same is true of Astana, who have been moulded into domestic champions and European contenders by Stoilov.
Many of the personnel who gave Celtic such a tough time last season are still at the club and their Bulgarian coach will undoubtedly set them up to be hard to break down, with Hungarian international midfielder Laszlo Kleinheisler adding protection alongside Ivan Maevski to an experienced and capable back four.
And we saw in the previous round against Rosenborg how hard it is to blow apart teams who stay solid. Three hours of action against the Norwegians produced just one goal, scored by James Forrest.
What that also means is that Celtic have yet to concede a goal in four Champions League ties, which has to raise hopes of a home win to nil, a 5-4 shot. Celtic to win by one goal is being dangled at 5-2 by Skybet.
Celtic have won 19 and drawn three of their 22 home games since they last suffered a defeat in front of their own fans, a 2-0 defeat to Barcelona nine months ago.
And Astana have won just one of their last 14 away games in Europe. They have a decent striker in Congo’s Junior Kabananga – top scorer in January’s Africa Cup of Nations – but he’ll be starved of much in the way of service.
The Kazakh league leaders may not clock up chances but they should, if recent history is extended, chalk up their share of cards.
They mustered nine cards (two of them red) at Celtic a year ago and away at Spartaks Jurmala in the second qualifying round – where the first leg was the away tie – they earned four yellows.
Hills are 8-5 that Astana receive four or Astana cards which looks more than feasible given the tackles they’ll be making and, if the match is tight, the time they’ll be wasting.
Celtic to win and under 3.5 goals
3pts Evs BoyleSports
Four or more Astana cards
2pts 8-5 Hills
Centre-backs Dedryck Boyata and Erik Sviatchenko are injured. Moussa Dembele is out with a hamstring problem. Leigh Griffiths is carrying a calf injury.
Stanimir Stoilov has indicated that Yevgeny Postnikov could miss out due to injury. Loanee Laszlo Kleinheisler may have to settle for a place on the bench.
Astana have won only one of their last 14 European away ties