Celtic will face a big test of their European credentials when they play Astana in Kazakhstan on Wednesday.
Brendan Rodgers’ side secured their passage into the third round qualifier after defeat of Lincoln Red Imps but this match against the Kazakh champions will be an altogether different proposition.
Rodgers has a selection headache in his defence as a number of notable absentees have left the Scottish champions vulnerable at the back.
Erik Sviatchenko, Dedryck Boyata and Jozo Simunovic are all sidelined, while new signing Kolo Toure didn’t make the trip to central Asia.
Efe Ambrose and Eoghan O’Connell are the only recognised centre-backs available for this massive clash though Mikael Lustig could fill in as a makeshift central defender.
Ambrose’s lapses in concentration and error-strewn displays are well documented, while O’Connell has been on the periphery. He did somewhat stake a claim for a start in Astana with a fine showing and goal against the English champions Leicester City on Saturday.
A six-hour flight, five-hour time difference and a poor-looking artificial surface only serve to increase the level of difficulty facing Celtic, and that’s before the opposition is considered.
Astana are bankrolled by the state, making them one of the richest clubs in Europe and they hope to fly the flag for Kazakhstan on the international stage.
Artificial Astana pitch Celtic will play on tomorrow. pic.twitter.com/ghgQbB5yQ8
— stephen.mcgowan (@mcgowan_stephen) July 26, 2016
Their proposed league game against Shakhter Karagandy on Saturday was postponed to help with their Champions League bid.
The current holders of the Kazakhstan Premier League look set to their retain their title as they are seven points ahead of second-placed Kairat Almaty with a game in hand having played 21 games.
Astana showed their quality last season when they secured admirable draws against Atletico Madrid, Benfica and Galatasaray in the group stages despite still finishing bottom.
They will be without captain Tanat Nusserbayev who is sidelined with a knee injury but they have talent in the form of highly rated midfielder Nemanja Maksimovic and Ghanaian striker Patrick Twumasi.
The Hoops will also be familiar with Agim Ibraimi, formerly of Maribor, who knocked Celtic out two seasons ago and Roger Canas who was in the Shakhter Karagandy side that lost to the Hoops.
Celtic have faced Kazakh opposition before when they suffered a 2-0 defeat to Shakhter away from home before rescuing the tie with a 3-0 win at Celtic Park.
But the feeling is this Astana side are much better equipped than what Shakhter were in 2013, and a performance similar in nature to the one produced against the Red Imps in Gibraltar and Celtic’s Champions League dream could be over before it’s begun.