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Celtic have no need to fear the unknown

IN contrast to the vast majority of the inhabitants of Glasgow, pretty much every Russian speaker on the planet knows Karaganda.

Kazakhstan??s national stadium is 113 miles from Karaganda
Kazakhstan??s national stadium is 113 miles from Karaganda

Sadly for anyone adventurous enough to visit, it's not because of the city's great history or beauty; though if you are looking for some non-footballing diversions you can always visit the city's Gulag memorial, commemorating one of the Soviet Union's largest and most brutal correctional camps.

The main reason for Karaganda's fame, however, is a popular saying. Asked a stupid question about where to find something - "where is Celtic Park?", for example - and anyone brought up in the USSR will respond: "In Karaganda!" The joke being that even by the standards of the former Soviet Union, a country spanning eleven time zones, Karaganda is in the middle of nowhere.

Having said that, the city's football team Shakhter are doing their utmost to put themselves firmly on the map. Champions of Kazakhstan for the last two years, they shocked Belarusians BATE Borisov, perennial qualifiers for the Champions League group stage, in the second qualifying round; and notched another noteworthy victory against Albanians Skenderbeu a fortnight later. This week's match against Celtic is an opportunity for the side nicknamed the Miners - the city also sits atop a huge coalfield - to claim another prized scalp.

Kazakh football, while hardly setting tongues wagging abroad, continues to grow. The national team is making small steps towards respectability, having claimed a 0-0 draw at home to Austria in World Cup qualifying last November which was as celebrated as it was unexpected. Money has also been invested to try and bring domestic clubs up to par.

ArcelorMittal, the metallurgy giant owned by London-based billionaire Lakshmi Mittal, and ENRC, another mining firm headquartered in the UK, have provided financial support to Shakhter Karagandy in recent years, including a one-off payment totalling 477 million tenge (about £2m; money goes a long way in Kazakh football).

Patronage and investment has also benefited other clubs, most notably the country's most decorated team Kayrat Almaty, who were briefly managed by ex-Aston Villa boss John Gregory in 2011, and whose current head coach is Vladimir Weiss, father of the ex-Rangers winger of the same name, who guided the Slovakia national team to the last-16 of the 2010 World Cup.

Happily for Celtic fans, Kazakhstan's league still remains a long way off competing on an even field with SPFL Premiership sides. All signs point to a victory for Celtic and passage to the Champions League proper. Shakhter are the lowest-ranked team left in qualifying, having only ever won three two-legged European ties in their history. Even those with a vague familiarity with football in the former Soviet Union would struggle to recognise a single name on the club's roster. Moreover, their outstanding player from last term, midfielder Zhambyl Kukeyev, who led the league in assists in 2012, departed for fellow Kazakh side Kayrat Almaty over the winter.

And in a move which arguably puts Shakhter at an even greater disadvantage, Tuesday's match will be played not in Karaganda but 113 miles away at the Astana Arena.

Having said that, it may not be entirely plain sailing for Celtic in Kazakhstan. Shakhter are midway through their domestic season.Breaking down their stubborn defence may be another issue, with the all-Bosnian central-defensive partnership of Aldin Didic and Nikola Vasiljevic at the heart of a back line which conceded 15 goals in 26 games in winning the title.

Likewise the forward line of local hero Andrey Finonchenko, who in his youth worked as a ball-boy at Shakhter Stadium, Belarusian summer signing Ihar Zyankovich, and the great hope of Kazakh football, 22-year-old striker Sergey Khizhnichenko, could cause Celtic some problems.

Still, it would take the most optimistic of fans to predict an upset over two legs; something even Kazakhs themselves acknowledge. "Of course people are betting on Celtic, they're a world-class team," Viktoria Rudenko, a representative for one of Kazakhstan's major bookmakers, told Kazakhstan's major television channel last week. "But they're also betting on our team. Mind you, most are betting that they won't lose, rather than on an outright victory."

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