Astana clash is make or break for Celtic admits Griffiths
Uefa Champions League play-off, first leg: Celtic v Astana (Wednesday, 7.45pm, live on BT Sport 2)
LEIGH Griffiths admits the success of Celtic’s entire campaign could hinge on tonight’s “make or break” Champions League clash with Astana.
After sweeping all domestic rivals aside last term, Brendan Rodgers’ outfit once again have aspirations of making their mark in Europe.
They take on the Kazakhstan champions tonight in the opening leg of their final qualifier, with a ticket for the group stages and a potential £30million windfall on the line.
But Griffiths admits that, with the new season barely a month old, they are already facing a match that could define their year.
He said: “It makes or breaks our season if we get to the Champions League.
“Last year it set us up on a great platform. We knew it was a difficult group but having Champions League football back at Celtic Park after two disappointing years previously was massive for everybody involved.
“If we can get back into the group it will put everyone on a real high. The fans will be shouting from the rooftops and it will make the start we’ve made to the season worthwhile.”
Victory over Rosenborg in the previous round guaranteed that Rodgers’ treble winners would be playing in European fixtures until December at worst.
All that remains to be settled against Astana is whether that is in the continent’s premier competition, or its poor relation the Europa League.
But Griffiths was defiant when it was put to him by a Kazakh reporter that defeat to their opponents from Central Asia would be “catastrophic”.
“I don’t think about losing,” he shot back. “We as a club don’t think about losing. I only think about the Champions League group stages. I don’t think about the Europa League.”
Celtic head into the first leg boosted by having a packed dossier on Astana following their clash in the third qualifying round last year.
But while Rodgers reckons the Kazakhs have not changed much, he says his side have developed a steelier edge in the 12 months since.
“We played them last year and had two tough games which thankfully we got through,” said the Carnlough man, who will still be without defenders Erik Sviatchenko, Dedryck Boyata and striker Moussa Dembele.
“The style hasn’t changed so much. It’s the same coach, a lot of the same players and the game in which they play is quite direct.
“They play up to the big striker who has good technique and has good mobility for a big striker. They then play off the wide player Patrick Twumasi who is very fast on the counter-attack.
“So that actual style of the game is pretty much the same.
“But the European games we had last year helped us gain a resilience. It was interesting watching last season’s qualifiers back and in terms of how we played the game, what our idea of football was, it was nowhere near what it is now.
“So what we have built up since then is that mental resilience.
“We’re missing some key players but it’s not a computer game. It’s not Football Manager where if you lose one you can just pick one straight off the computer and put him straight in.
“It’s much more difficult than that – but I have always put trust in the players I have.”
Griffiths grabbed goals in both legs last year before Dembele’s late penalty saw the Hoops edge out Astana 3-2 on aggregate.
With the Frenchman out injured, the responsibility for firing Celtic through now falls squarely on Griffiths’ shoulders.
He has shaken off a calf injury to declare himself “fully fit and raring to go” but Rodgers has already admitted the uncertainty over his top two marksmen could see him bring in a third poacher.
But the Scotland striker reckons there is enough firepower in the Parkhead dressing room to make that unnecessary.
“You have got Moussa and me but when we’re both injured it’s obviously difficult at times,” he said. “But when we’re fully fit I wouldn’t have any other two strikers in the league to be honest.
“I don’t think there’s any added pressure on me right now [being the only fit striker]. I showed last year even when Moussa was fit I was still the main man to go to and get the goals to fire us into the Champions League.
“Yeah if Moussa was fit it would be a massive help to us but with the quality we have got in the dressing room we’re more than capable of getting through the two ties.”