Celtic look to book Champions League ticket after long saga

Celtic resume their quest to reach the UEFA Champions League group stage as they host Maribor in the second leg of the playoff round (live, FOX Sports 1, Tuesday, 2 p.m. ET). It is the final hurdle in their long and strange saga through qualifying for Europe’s preeminent club soccer tournament.

Celtic drew the first leg 1-1 last Wednesday and perhaps deserved more in a topsy-turvy game. Callum McGregor was alert to an early chance for the Bhoys and put them ahead, but in the 14th minute the Slovenians equalized through Damjan Bohar. The Scots could feel aggrieved not to have taken a lead into the second game as they were denied credible penalties on several occasions and, curiously, saw a ball saved off Maribor’s goal line by their own Stefan Johansen on a Virgil van Dijk header.

Nonetheless, they banked the invaluable road goal giving them the slight edge in the return game. Considering how this summer and qualifying campaign has gone for Celtic, that’s a victory in and of itself. After a third straight league title won by at least a 16 point-margin over the runners-up, manager Neil Lennon quit following last season.

It is said that he was looking for a new challenge, since he kept winning the Scottish league at a canter — doing so by an absurd 29 points last year, with just one loss in 38 games — once Rangers were dropped to the fourth tier after their financial restructuring. The other narrative was one of Lennon’s frustration with Celtic’s inability to adequately replace the many stars they kept losing, preventing him from competing properly in Europe.

In the wake of his departure, the proud and storied club was almost embarrassed in the third qualifying round. Courtesy of Scotland’s tumble down the UEFA coefficient, their champions had to start in the second qualifying phase, where they comfortably dispatched KR out of Iceland. In the next round, however, they were trounced 6-1 on aggregate by humble Legia Warsaw. However, the Polish club had fielded an ineligible player — they thought he had served a suspension which he hadn’t, since he was never registered for the games he sat out — and Celtic were awarded the second game 3-0 by forfeit on the technicality. Amazingly, that handed them the tie on away goals.

So now, in spite of all that, Celtic are well positioned to reach the group stage for a fourth year running. A 0-0 draw sees them through, as does any kind of win. The relevance and riches offered by the Champions League are badly needed in their uphill battle to uphold Scotland’s honor.

The stakes are just as high in the day’s other games. Lille travel to Porto after dropping the first leg 1-0 at home in a sluggish game that offered up few chances (live, FOX Sports 2, Tuesday, 2 p.m. ET). Porto’s Hector Herrera pounced and scored the winner for the Portuguese visitors in the second half. It could so easily have ended 1-1 though, if Lille defender Sebastian Corchia had possessed the wherewithal to convert one of his two luscious and consecutive chances in the first half. He didn’t, and so now Lille have it all to do in the return leg, with the score and the away goal working against them.

Zenit St. Petersburg return home with that same luxury as Porto enjoy, having taken the first leg with Standard Liege 1-0 last week, courtesy of a good Oleg Shatov finish. The moneyed Russians were good value for their win and could perhaps have gotten a few more goals, had they been a little more incisive. It seems now that their homecoming is something of a formality as Standard have both that goal and a serious talent deficiency to overcome.

APOEL could count themselves lucky to leave Denmark with a 1-1 tie with Aalborg in the first leg, thanks to a Vinicius equalizer on Nicolaj Thomsen’s go-ahead goal. As such, the Cypriot club now look like they have a decent chance of becoming the surprise participants in the main tournament, if they can retain their edge in the return leg.

The final contest, an Eastern European affair between BATE Borisov of Belarus and Slovan Bratislava of Slovakia, will sort out who advances following another 1-1 tie. In this one, the visiting Belarusians seemed to have edged the game but they needed an own goal from Tomas Jablonsky to go ahead. Robert Vittek would tie the game up fairly late. BATE will feel good about reaching the group stage for a third time in four years going into the return game, though.