HAVING to successfully negotiate four qualifying rounds, no fewer than eight matches in total, early in the new season in order to reach the hallowed ground of the Champions League group stages has become an annual ordeal for Celtic.

Even the meetings with Nomme Kalju of Estonia, who the Parkhead club are expected to defeat at home this evening and then beat comfortably over two legs, require to be treated seriously and will not be without their difficulties.

The failures against Artmedia Bratislava, Braga, NK Maribor and AEK Athens are all painful reminders of what can happen if they fail to perform to their very best.

Neil Lennon, who suffered a few ignominious exits early on in his managerial career at Celtic, acknowledged yesterday that the Kalju encounters will once again be a step into the unknown.

Asked how their rivals would compare to their first round opponents Sarajevo, he said: “I don’t know, it’s difficult to gauge. They had a great result in Macedonia (they defeated Shkendija 2-1 to go through on away goals). I think that was pretty unexpected really.

“The two goals the Macedonians scored were from penalties so they might be a tough nut to crack. But we are well prepared for it, we know how important the tie is. It would be great if we could get some sort of decent, substantial lead to take over there.”

Yet, Lennon and his players have been over the course many times before and he is confident Celtic possess the necessary nous to see off the Tallin outfit and return to Europe’s premier club competition proper.

“We’ve got good experience now,” he said. “(Scott) Browny, Callum (McGregor), Jamesie (Forrest), even the likes of (Jozo) Simunovic, they are experienced European players now. You would like to think there is a good core of them. Even (Ryan) Christie to a certain extent. They have played a lot of games at this level.”

The interest that has been shown in Simunovic, the Croatian centre half whose career Lennon resurrected after taking over from Brendan Rodgers back in February, has not been welcomed despite the arrival of Christopher Jullien from Toulouse in a £7m transfer last month.

He is keen to retain his most influential performers this summer as well as make new signings and sees his 24-year-old defender – who Lille manager Christophe Galtier has publicly admitted he is an admirer of and has been tipped to table a £5m offer for in the coming days – as being integral to his future plans.

“I don’t know if there’s been direct contact, but through agents and that you hear rumours and speculation,” he said. “There appears to be some interest, yeah, but there is nothing concrete.

“He’s a player I don’t want to lose because he has been fantastic for me since I came in and I thought he was superb last week. We have a year left on his contract and we have an option so we’re still in a very strong position on that.”

Having to deal with speculation about his players is part and parcel of being Celtic manager at this stage in the season. But it does nothing to make his immediate objective – getting through to the Champions League group stages and banking - any more straightforward. And if his men prevail against Kalju their task will get harder still.

If the treble treble winners do progress, they will then only have a week to prepare for a second successive away game against either CFR Cluj of Romania or Maccabi Tel Aviv of Israel in their opening third round fixture.

“We are having the Cluj and Maccabi game watched,” he said. “We have people going out to the game and we will get a full report and obviously a lot of footage. We are familiar with both of the teams. It’s far better to watch them in the flesh, but it’s impossible at this stage of the season.

“It’s like watching a player - you see them on screen and they look brilliant and then you see them in the flesh and it’s different. And sometimes you see teams on TV and you think ‘we should be okay here’ but you see them live and all of a sudden you realise you have a game on.

“You just try to prepare them as best as you possibly can. And the players get a feel for it. After five minutes they work out strengths and weaknesses and the physical side of the game as well, what pace the game’s going to be at.”

Jullien could make his debut. “He is in my thoughts,” said Lennon. “The only issue is a lack of game time. But we will take our time with him if we need to.”