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Pitch perfect, now Celtic must set tone

CELTIC will make history this evening when they become the first club from Scotland to play a match in Kazakhstan.

Celtic had their concerns over the artificial surface at the Astana Arena allayed after training on the pitch
Celtic had their concerns over the artificial surface at the Astana Arena allayed after training on the pitch

Is is, however, ground they were preparing to break eight years ago, plans having already been put in motion to travel to the land-locked central Asian country to face Almaty in the second qualifying round of the Champions League, only for fate to intervene.

Gordon Strachan had just been appointed Celtic manager, and admitted he was relieved when the Kazakhs lost their first qualifying round tie to an equally-unknown side from Slovakia. Unfortunately for the man who had just replaced Martin O'Neill, this meant the team they had to face was Artmedia Bratislava. One 5-0 thumping later, and Celtic's European history did indeed have a new chapter written as, despite a 4-0 fightback in the return leg, they could not undo the damage and were eliminated.

Whatever the result over the two legs of this tie against Shakhter Karagandy, Celtic will remain in Europe until at least mid-December when the group stages of the Champions and Europa League are completed. Not that anyone at the club would be anything other than hugely disappointed if they found themselves parachuted into to the secondary competition after the second leg in Glasgow.

Which is why every available stop has been pulled out to get a positive result tonight in Astana and take the heat off from the return at Celtic Park. The departure from Aberdeen immediately after winning 2-0 at Pittodrie on Saturday has given the players extra time to adjust to the unusual environment and five-hour time difference, while the training sessions on the artificial surface at the impressive Astana Arena have also allayed a few fears.

Most important of all, however, Lennon believes the experience he and his players now have will be an advantage for them as they chase that Champions League dream. The manager would like to have strengthened ahead of these games, but believes in the players who have carried them this far. "The players have earned our trust, to a certain extent, but every game is different," he cautioned. "I don't think this is going to be an open, passing, fluid game. It's going to be attritional at times, and maybe as tight as the Elfsborg game. So we have to prepare for all eventualities."

That includes knowing that Shakhter have carried out a ritual slaughtering of a sheep in the tunnel of the stadium in an attempt to harness external forces. Lennon is content to rely on the men he has moulded into an efficient unit, one that has yet to concede in this term's qualifying campaign. It has often been a struggle, even when it should not have been, but they have got here. "They have learned to win ugly," said Lennon. "They have ground out a few results along the way, and it might be a case of having to do that again until we get them back to Parkhead, where it will suit us being at home and we can make the game a little bit more expansive.

"The play-off games are a minefield. They come so early, and it's a horrible period for myself. So you just do what you can to prepare. We have worked long hours for the past five or six weeks and we know what we have to do now."

That is not necessarily win this evening, but an away goal would be gratefully received. Coach Gary Parker watched a shadow Shakhter side beat Astana at the weekend and, although he learned little about the personnel, he was able to hone his knowledge of their system. Lennon confirmed: "We watched them playing BATE Borisov at home and they are quite defensive and direct in how they get it forward. They are big, fit and organised. There don't seem to be many technical players, but they are fully committed. They were a goal up going into the second leg, and maybe that was their plan: to sit and soak up the pressure. If that is the case, we would hope to control the game for periods."

Two 1-0 defeats of BATE, who reached the group stages last year, in the second qualifying round first brought the Kazakhs on to the radar, and Lennon appreciates they are a wildcard in this game of high-stakes Champions League poker. "BATE missed a penalty, but I'm not taking this tie lightly," insisted Lennon. "Travelling to these countries is not easy. We'll have to be spot on, mentally, and make sure we are well organised because I think mentality has a lot to do with it.

"We have better players, but they are a team who has never reached this stage before and will be hungry for success. But we're hungry, too. We know what's at stake, and it will mean a lot to us. It's there for us."

Asked if he can almost touch the Champions League group stage, a window into his psyche opened as Lennon replied quickly: "No. It's still a long way off. I'll have more of an idea after 90 minutes tomorrow."

He concedes these are tense times and agrees this period of the season is akin to walking on eggshells. "It's a balancing act with injuries, league games and trying to get players in," said Lennon. "So it's been a difficult three or four weeks. But the players seem quite relaxed . . . more relaxed than me."

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