Football/Soccer

Celtic won't rest on their Astana laurels with Champions League place up for grabs

Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths will be handed the task of delivering the goals to see his side into the Champions League group stages at the expense of Astana Picture: PA

ONE of the quirks that comes with Celtic's total domination of Scottish football is that their most important games come right at the start of the season.

Everybody knows the Hoops will win the Ladbrokes Premiership, the only question being by how much.

Odds of 1/16 tell you that. Indeed, they might even go unbeaten in domestic competition again, so superior are they to nearest challengers Aberdeen and Rangers.

So the biggest challenge facing Brendan Rodgers and his squad comes in reaching the Champions League group stages and subsequently trying to make the last 16.

Much of the budget at Parkhead depends on those sparkling European nights under the lights against the continent's big guns, and while it has been a relatively quiet summer in terms of signings thus far, a few new faces might well be making their way to the east end of Glasgow should that coveted group stage place be secured.

The final obstacle in that regard is FC Astana, whom Celtic host in the play-off, first leg tonight before making the arduous journey to Kazakhstan for the return game next Tuesday.

That is a familiar trip for the Hoops, who faced the Kazakh champions in the third qualifying round last term, in the very early days of Rodgers's reign at the club.

And the very fact Celtic made hard work of it then should totally focus their minds for tonight's game, when the aim will be to keep a clean sheet and hopefully build a bit of a cushion to take away with them.

They couldn't do that 12 months ago, when penalties from Leigh Griffiths and Moussa Dembele – the latter in injury-time – saw them sneak through.

Both clubs have already had to negotiate two rounds to get them this far, with Astana's victory over Polish champions Legia Warsaw catching the eye.

Celtic, by contrast, made hard work of Rosenberg having previously dismissed Linfield with ease.

The Hoops had to rely on a James Forrest strike in Norway a fortnight ago to get them to this stage, and a much improved home performance will be required.

That should be well within their compass as they are three games further into the season, all of which have been won without really breaking sweat.

Rodgers mixed things up for last Friday's 1-0 win away to Partick, with Griffiths given the night off with this game in mind.

The striker has had a calf problem over the summer and has been nursed through the early stages of the campaign, but he still managed to score twice against Hearts in the league opener before adding another brace in the League Cup romp against Kilmarnock.

The Scotland man will be chomping at the bit to make his mark in a big game like tonight's as he bids to copper-fasten his place in the team with Moussa Dembele still hamstrung.

Griffiths is the key player, his nose for a goal vital as Celtic aim to take a lead to Kazakhstan, with Astana unbeaten in 14 home games in Europe on their plastic pitch, which will always present a challenge to visiting sides.

The motivation to get the job as good as done this evening is huge, and while Rodgers will not set his team out to go gung-ho from the off, they will try to get on the front foot and assert their quick passing game.

Celtic are a good side these days, much better than when Astana gave them their fill of it last summer, when Rodgers still trying to get his message across.

I don't really envisage as much difficulty this time around, and the bookies agree, with the Hoops a biggest price of 4/9 (Sky Bet) to win the first leg and 4/11 (William Hill) to progress.

It would a big surprise should Celtic not be in the draw for the Champions League group stages again, where they inevitably will be paired with Barcelona, and if they are to achieve that aim they must win this evening, so the 4/9 isn't actually a bad price.

However, most punters will be looking something bigger than that, and the first thing that catches the eye is the 6/5 offered by Paddy Power about the home side winning and Griffiths finding the net.

And while Astana have a couple of players in good scoring form in Ghana forward Patrick Twumasi and Congo international Junior Kabananga, I think the Bhoys can win with a bit to spare, so the 7/2 about them minus two, also with Paddy Power, is another price which merits consideration.

While this isn't a glamorous European tie on paper, it is a huge game that Celtic fans will be anxious about.

A fast start and a professional performance should ease that anxiety and leave the Parkhead faithful looking forward to more big nights to come.

Selections

Celtic to beat Astana and Leigh Griffiths to score, 6/5 (Paddy Power)

Celtic (-2), 7/2 (Paddy Power)

THE Major season is now over and the four biggest events on the golfing calendar all produced very good winners this year.

Three of them, Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka, and Sunday's US PGA winner Justin Thomas, claimed their first Major title, and all three deserved their breakthroughs as members of the game's elite.

Yet Jordan Spieth's victory in the Open Championship was probably the most exciting of the year, coming on an old school links course at Royal Birkdale where the emphasis was on imagination and a quality short game as opposed to raw power.

Certainly, the powers that be got it slightly wrong at the US Open and the US PGA, using monster courses and instantly making sure most of the field had no chance.

Shorter hitters are largely ruled out of contention in the big events, and there is a fair percentage of competitors who turn up for the Majors for the experience, and not because they think they can win.

With eight months until the Masters rolls around again, the focus for the next few weeks is the FedEx Cup, where the quest for glory is replaced by the lust for cold, hard cash.

This week's Wyndham Championship is the last regular event before the FedEx play-offs begin, with only the top 125 on the PGA Tour come Sunday night eligible to tee it up in The Northern Trust next Thursday.

Plenty of big names are currently outside that cut-off point, including Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry, both of whom stay in North Carolina after struggling at Quail Hollow for the Wyndham, which is played at Sedgefield Country Club.

The fact this course is a short par 70 by modern standards will come as a relief to many after the slog at Quail Hollow, and a different type of player should thrive.

Henrik Stenson is the favourite at 14/1, followed by Kevin Kisner, who was bang in things for most of last week before fading late on Sunday.

Kisner has a fine record at Sedgefield but will surely be drained and I'd much prefer Webb Simpson at 25/1 (Bet Victor).

The former US Open champion is a Quail Hollow member and he performed well to tie for 33rd last week given that the changes to the course made it too long for him.

This is his chance to shine in his native North Carolina, and he won at Sedgefield back in 2011, as well as finishing fourth in 2014 and sixth last term.

Simpson (left) has been in good form without standing out and he could come to the fore on one of his favourite tracks.

Elsewhere, Ryan Moore has had a quiet 2017 but played nicely to finish 13th on Sunday and he too is a proven Wyndham performer, having won this event in 2009.

Moore flew up the FedEx rankings late last season and eventually lost in a play-off at the Tour Championship to Rory McIlroy.

There are signs he is coming into form at the right time again and at 28/1 he should be backed each-way.

Finally, McDowell might be worth a small bet to transfer some fleeting form into a tangible result.

The Portrush man missed the cut at Quail Hollow but that layout was never going to suit, whereas he was fifth at Sedgefield last term and at his best it would be perfect for him.

McDowell is trading birdies for mistakes but he needs a big week to salvage something from his season and at 80/1 with Boylesports he might just represent a bit of value.

Selections

Webb Simpson, Wyndham Championship, e/w, 25/1 (Bet Victor)

Ryan Moore, Wyndham Championship, e/w, (General)

Graeme McDowell, Wyndham Championship, e/w, 80/1 (Boylesports)

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