Glasgow (AFP) – Celtic will be on familiar ground when they take on Hapoel Beer-Sheva for a place in the Champions League in the first leg of their play-off tie at Parkhead on Wednesday.
For the past two seasons the Hoops have reached the play-off round to put themselves within touching distance of the riches of the group stage only to see the £20 million (23 million euros, $25.8 million) prize money snatched away from them.
Under former manager Ronny Deila the Scottish champions fell at the final hurdle to Maribor and Malmo, defeats which cast a heavy shadow over his two years in charge of the club.
Failure to qualify cost Celtic more than just the lucrative prize money on offer. Champions League matches used to give the club’s supporters, already disheartened by the lack of rivals Rangers in the top flight, something to look forward to in the absence of the Old Firm and Deila’s failure to provide them saw attendances at Parkhead plummet.
Brendan Rodgers has been brought in as Deila’s high-profile replacement and the Celtic board haven’t made him the highest-paid manager in Scottish football history in order for him just to pip the returning Rangers to the Scottish Premiership title.
He inherited a side that, despite winning its fifth league title in a row, was down after suffering a shock defeat to Rangers — at that point plying their trade in the Championship — in the Scottish Cup semi-final and this was evident in their early performances under the former Liverpool boss.
His first foray into Champions League qualification saw the Hoops slip to arguably their worst ever result as Gibraltar part-timers Lincoln Red Imps defeated them 1-0.
– Rodgers ‘feeling good’ –
Celtic recovered to see off the side that contained just five full-time professionals alongside a customs officer, fireman, policeman and taxi driver 3-0 in Glasgow before overcoming Astana to book their play-off clash with the Israeli champions.
Rodgers may be just six competitive games into his Celtic career but he believes his side are in good shape — as they aim to book a berth in the group stages for the first time in three years — because they have bought into his vision for the club.
“I’m feeling good. I think we’ve done everything we possibly could. I don’t think we could have done any more,” the Celtic manager said.
“We have arrived at the point where there’s still a lot of improvement to come but we have shown good signs that the team can play at the tempo and with the technique I want.
“We get to Wednesday in a really good position. It’s the final step and it’s a big step we need to take.
“I saw the games towards the end of the season and the team was suffering after the Rangers game and whatnot. The team wasn’t in a good place. When I took the job I looked forward to see how they would develop and cope with what I wanted. I’ve been pleasantly surprised from a positive perspective. The players have bought into what we are doing.
“Now we have a mentality at the club of dominance, of wanting to be aggressive and press, and we play without fear. I still felt the players needed help and needed to bring a different tempo to the game, but they have done that. Now there’s more hard work to do.”