Champions bets hard to qualify
Ben Coley previews Tuesday night's Champions League qualifiers but is reluctant to advise a bet.
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Celtic are one step - rather, two games - away from the Champions League group stage and at first glance one would think a two-legged tie with Kazakhstan's champions Shakhter Karagandy is one they'll negotiate without alarm.
Why? Well, quite simply because most of us had never heard of Shakhter until very recently and Celtic know what negotiating these qualifiers is all about.
But from everything I read Shakhter Karagandy are not to be underestimated.
Shakhter sounds familiar and that's because it is. Just like Ukranian outfit Shakhtar Donetsk, Karagandy's heritage is in mining and it's not uncommon for new signings to be initiated with a trip down the mines.
"I remember us descending 521m one day," defender Yevgeni Tarasov told UEFA's official website.
"Just think about that! We saw how difficult the pitmen's working conditions are. Our team saw then what backbreaking labour it is. Despite all the dangers of the coal-mining industry these people do a very hard job. We even saw lava! This is something you don't forget."
The squad appear to have a wonderful unity which has helped them become the first Kazakh side to reach a European group stage - should they lose to Celtic, they'll drop into the Europa League.
That unity travels. They won 1-0 away at BATE Borisov earlier this summer - a side who beat Bayern Munich and Lille in last season's Champions League group stage - and have won both 'home' qualification ties to nil despite being forced to travel over 200 kilometres north to Astana and an artificial pitch (more on that later) for those games.
Karagandy's mining heritage has earned them a reputation for being hard-working, tough and even brutal on the pitch. Set pieces from Gediminas Vicius offer a constant threat, although they have creative flair among their ranks too and a club legend in Andrei Finonchenko up front.
Their domestic campaign, such as it is, hasn't gone to plan this year. Having won their first title in 2011 and followed up last year, this time around Karagandy approach the closing stages of the season with little chance to catch FC Aktobe.
But there's no doubt that this tie is what their season revolves around. The prospect of drawing a European great in the group stage is now a very real one and bookmakers are affording them respect, with Celtic odds-against to triumph in the first leg.
There's no temptation to back Celtic. Quite simply I haven't seen their opponents play and although Karagandy were seemingly a tad fortunate against BATE, this game is so important to them and their 20,000-strong support will surely create a difficult atmosphere for the visitors at the national stadium.
Neil Lennon's side are in-form and beat Aberdeen without alarm on Saturday, but they only managed a 0-0 draw at Elfsborg in their last Champions League tie and Neil Lennon was damning in his criticism of the artificial surface they were forced to play on there.
Throw in a seven-hour flight and the fact that Gary Hooper's departure appears to have left Celtic lacking somewhat in the striking department, and there are one or two more problems for the Scottish champions than we might've assumed.
With those issues and Karagandy's two home wins to nil in qualifying so far in mind, those who want to watch this game with a betting slip in hand are advised to consider no goalscorer at 9/1 and under 2.5 goals at a very fair 4/6.
Karagandy do look set to make this a real physical test and you sense that Celtic would settle for a goalless draw to take home, especially given that they face an impressive Inverness side inbetween.
Of the match prices, I'd certainly be more inclined to chance the home side at 5/2 than I would Celtic at 5/4, but clearly too much guesswork is involved here and I'm happy to sit it out.
Looking at the other ties, PSV Eindhoven could cause problems for AC Milan and are worth considering as underdogs.
Under the guidance of midfielder-turned-coach Philip Cocu, who is keen to capitalise on PSV's youth infrastructure, PSV sit top of the Eredivisie thanks to three wins from three.
That youth system has helped develop exciting Belgian talent Zakaria Bakkali, signed from Standard Liege as a 12-year-old and now the youngest player ever to score an Eredivisie hat-trick after ripping apart NEC Nijmegen just over a week ago.
The reported Arsenal target was rested at the weekend and it'll be fascinating to see whether he's given the go-ahead to start against a Milan side who will be playing their first competitive fixture of the campaign.
Milan have lost their last two visits to PSV and have been relatively quiet in the transfer market this summer, so it wouldn't be a surprise were this exciting young PSV side to catch them cold, but again I can't say that 15/8 is a massive underestimation of their prospects and I'm happy to abstain.