CELTIC were handed an excellent chance of reaching the money-spinning group stages of the Champions League yesterday when they were drawn against Swedish side Helsingborg, but it was the Europa League draw which grabbed the lion’s share of excitement in Scotland.
Hearts were paired with Liverpool, while La Liga side Levante stand in the way of Motherwell. While some Hearts supporters were disappointed to be denied a trip to more exotic climes than Merseyside, manager John McGlynn could not hide his delight as he reflected on the news Liverpool will be arriving at Tynecastle for a Europa League play-off clash in under a fortnight’s time.
Just a few short months ago he was involved in a relegation battle with Raith Rovers. Now McGlynn is preparing to pit his wits against the five-times champions of Europe, with the first leg scheduled to be played at Tynecastle on either 22 or 23 August. The second leg will be staged a week later.
As with Hearts, the Anfield side made a managerial change in the summer even though a cup had been won during the previous season. Kenny Dalglish, whose side lifted the Carling Cup in February, made way for Brendan Rodgers. Like McGlynn, the former Swansea manager is determined to make an early impression. Liverpool have not played at Tynecastle since a charity match in 1958, when they took on an Edinburgh select side.
Hearts and Liverpool last played each other in a friendly in 1929, although the Tynecastle side came up against quality English opposition only last season at the same stage of the same competition. It wasn’t a happy experience at Tynecastle as Spurs thrashed Hearts 5-0. However, the Scottish side clawed back some respect with a 0-0 draw in the second leg in London. “It’s an exciting prospect facing Liverpool,” said McGlynn. “Could I have imagined six months ago when I was at Raith Rovers I’d be playing against Liverpool? What a great opportunity for everyone.
“We’ve got a lot of young players in the team at the minute and the prospect for them to play home and away against Liverpool is fantastic. I’m a great believer that any match is 11 v 11. Obviously their budget is much more than ours. Stevie G [Gerrard] will be getting as much as my budget! He’ll be earning more than we can afford to pay our entire team so from that point of view you’re up against it.
“But I’m glad the game will be at Tynecastle because when I was at Hearts a few years ago European matches were at Murrayfield. While they were special nights, it wasn’t quite the same as playing at Tynecastle.”
McGlynn said Hearts will have learned from the experience against Spurs last season, when they appeared to stand off their English visitors. Unsurprisingly, Spurs took full advantage of the space offered and were 3-0 up before the half-hour mark.
“Unfortunately for Hearts it died kind of quickly that night,” said McGlynn. “There was a great build-up to that match and a great atmosphere but the way Tottenham went about their business that night, the game was finished very quickly before Hearts restored pride with a draw at White Hart Lane.”
McGlynn is one of the few on the Hearts staff with experience of playing at Anfield, having appeared there for Bolton reserves in 1980. “Frank McGarvey was playing in the Liverpool reserve team at the time,” he said. “What was the score? I think we lost, narrowly.”
In the Celtic camp, Kris Commons went straight to the internet to read up on Champions League play-off opponents Helsingborg after the draw was made in Nyon.
Following their convincing 2-0 win over HJK Helsinki in Finland on Wednesday, which sealed a 4-1 aggregate triumph, Neil Lennon’s men were paired with the Swedish champions, who themselves enjoyed an impressive 6-1 aggregate win over Polish side Slask Wroclaw in the third qualifier. Commons was keen to discover more about the team that stands between Celtic and a highly-coveted place in the lucrative group stages of European football’s elite club competition. “I don’t know much about them and have just been reading about them this morning,” the Scotland midfielder told Celtic’s website. “I think they won the treble last year and are sixth in the league just now. I wouldn’t say we are confident of progressing but it certainly whets your appetite to think you are potentially two games away from playing in the Champions League.
“It’s quite surreal really to think you are one round away from competing in the best club competition in the world. After the game in Helsinki everyone was buzzing and it’s something we all want to be part of.”
Celtic will travel to Sweden for the first leg on August 21 before contesting the return match at Parkhead eight days later. Commons said: “I think most teams think if they can get a half-decent result away from home then you have home advantage for the second leg to really go at teams and get a couple of goals, but it’s quite new to everyone here. We have a young squad and are quite inexperienced in Europe, so it’s quite unusual territory for us. Commons is in Philadelphia for Celtic’s glamour friendly against Real Madrid tonight and it is a fixture he believes could provide a guide to Celtic’s progress. “It should be good,” he said. “No doubt there will be a decent crowd there. It will be good to play against one of the best teams in the world and see where we are. Nothing will be riding on it but we would like to leave with our credit intact and give them a good game.”
Stuart McCall, meanwhile, is relishing their Europa League tie against Spanish side Levante after getting a taste for European action against Panathinaikos. Motherwell lost 5-0 an aggregate in their Champions League debut but were never outclassed against a clinical Greek side.
The Valencia-based outfit finished sixth after being in the upper reaches for most of the season. McCall, whose side host St Johnstone today, said: “I don’t know a great deal about Levante. I know they had a terrific season and being a Spanish side they will be technically gifted. I’m pleased. It’s easy for the supporters to get to, possibly not as hot as Greece but you never know.”