The beginning of the season is undoubtedly the most important time of the year for Celtic. With success or failure in the Champions League, between now and August, invariably setting the tone for the rest of the season. With such a short period of rest between the Scottish Cup Final and the beginning of the Champions League qualifiers, players are hardly able to catch their breath after a long and gruelling campaign before they report back for pre-season training. Of course, this isn’t news to any Celtic supporters and it’s a stark reminder of what’s required to reach the group stage.
Matters aren’t made any easier with two key contributors to the back line, Mikael Lustig and Dedryck Boyata, making it to the quarter-final of the World Cup in Russia with Sweden and Belgium respectively.
UEFA has also contrived to make reaching the group stage even more difficult by adding another round of qualifying to the route Celtic need to navigate. The first step of this arduous journey will see the Hoops make the trip to Armenia to face FC Alashkert, which will doubtless be a tougher task than what Linfield offered last season, regardless of the theatrics that that tie presented us with.
Preparation has progressed quite smoothly during the preseason trip to Austria, despite the 1-0 loss to Bohemians Prague, as the Hoops picked up a pair of 1-0 victories over SK Vorwarts Steyr and Sparta Prague – James Forrest and Moussa Dembele the goalscorers. Along with goals from Mikey Johnston and Scott Sinclair which saw Celtic also beat BW Linz 2-1.
Brendan Rodgers said;
“I think it’s clear that you have to work your players towards full fitnes very very quickly, especially in the qualifiers. We had a really good week in Lennoxtown and we followed that with another good week of preparation in Austria and now we continue that preparation here (Dublin). We had a really good time here last season so at this stage of the season it’s good for us.”
“We’ve had a good preparation in terms of weather, but of course it’s always going to be difficult playing in extreme heat so we have to monitor the amount of pressure we put on the players in games. It’s hard to press for 90 minutes in this heat so it’s about preparing the players tactically, as much as physically, in terms of how you put a full-pitch-press on and at times it’s going to be a medium-press and at times a low-press.”
This will be the second year in succession that Celtic face Shamrock Rovers before their opening Champions League tie, with the Hoops winning 9-0 last time out. Again circumstances dictate that this match won’t be the sternest of tests for Celtic, Shamrock Rovers will be in domestic action against League of Ireland Champions Cork City down in Turners’ Cross on Friday night, looking to maintain their 3-point lead over Derry City for the last European place. Their looming Europa League tie against AIK Stockholm on Thursday, will also factor into manager Stephen Bradley’s team selection.
With this in mind, Rovers will likely field a much weakened team and a repeat of last summer’s 9-0 win for Celtic could be on the cards. No matter the team that the South Dublin side send out against Celtic, it will be a good chance for Brendan Rodgers to put the finishing touches to the shape and tactics he’ll want to employ against FC Alashkert in Armenia on Tuesday.
“We’re still building minutes and fitness and it’ll be a team that will probably play 60-70 minutes and then we’ll look to make changes from there. We can’t over-protect players because we’re still building fitness, and going into next week (vs FC Alashkert) we’ll be looking to push players for 90 minutes but we’ll be bearing in mind the 38°c heat. It’s competitive games really early and we also have to find a balance of getting the players fit and ready and strong enough to cope with the course of the whole season.”
Nonetheless, that hasn’t been the only preparation that the team has been undergoing. Brendan Rodgers also elaborated about how the Club are scouting FC Alashkert.
“We’ve done as much preparation as we possibly could. We’ve got a lot of coverage on them. We had an analyst out there and we have some footage on them as well so we’ll be as prepared as we possibly can be.”