Celtic take air miles into unknown against Shakhter Karagandy

By Liam McLeodFootball commentator, BBC Scotland
Aleksandr Mokin in action for Kazakhstan against England

Celtic picked up many plaudits on their way to the last 16 of the Champions League last season.

This time around, as they attempt to reach the group stage again, they are picking up air miles.

Just a couple of hours after Neil Lennon led his team on to a flight into .

As I write, the squad are having a rest day here in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan in central Asia ahead of Tuesday's against this country's champions, Shakhter Karagandy.

Roger Canas in action for Sibir Novosibirsk
Canas joined Shakhter after leaving Russian club Sibir Novosibirsk in 2011

With the exception of the infamous "Battle of Montevideo"external-link Intercontinental Cup matches against Racing Club in 1967, this is the furthest Celtic have travelled for a competitive match.

Kazakhstan and its clubs have played under the Uefa umbrella since the early 2000s, but the small band of Celtic fans who travel here will notice the culture is far from European.

who have emerged from the shadows of mediocrity in the last two years to win two Kazakh titles on the bounce.

As they bid for a hat-trick of Premier League championships, a quiet confidence has allowed them to progress - like Celtic - through two rounds of qualifying.

That they knocked out recent group stage regulars and victors over an all-conquering Bayern Munich team last season - BATE Borisov of Belarus - serves as plenty warning to Lennon and his men.

Shakhter won both legs of that tie 1-0, although a lot of that was owed to an horrific BATE goalkeeping error, a string of missed opportunities, including one from the penalty spot, and some terrific saves from goalkeeper Aleksandr Mokin in the Kazakhstan leg.

But the 2-0 aggregate success was followed up by another victory over Albanians Skenderbeu and there was a steely determination required to come through that one.

Shakhter won the first leg at a canter and took a 3-0 lead to Korce before three goals from the hosts levelled the tie within the first 30 minutes of the second leg.

However, the Karagandy side went through 5-3 overall to set up Tuesday's intriguing tie on yet another artificial surface.

Shakhter are based a three-hour drive away from where the match will take place, with the capital's Astana Arena their European home - a third straight away tie that Celtic will have negotiate on plastic.

They will also go into the match off the back of a victory after a shock 2-1 success in the very same stadium they will face the Scottish champions.

Astana were beaten 2-1 to move to within six points of the leaders, Aktobe, in what has been a stuttering title defence after 22 games in their spring/summer season.

Sergei Khizhnichenko (left) in action against Germany
Khizhnichenko (left) has made 19 appearances for Kazakhstan

Celtic coach Garry Parker made the trip early to watch the game but may not have learned as much as he would have liked.

The surprise win on Saturday was all the more impressive because Russian head coach Viktor Kumykov rested half his first-choice team with a view to facing Celtic.

Five of those left out from the start will probably be back in for Tuesday.

First choice goalkeeper Mokin and in-form top scorer Sergei Khizhnichenko were all part of the Kazakhstan side that defeated Georgia in Astana last week.

Indeed, Khizhnichenko scored the only goal of the game and has fired home in three of their four European matches so far this season.

Also left out of the midfield at the weekend were Lithuania international Gediminas Vicius - who was an integral part in Shakhter's run to the title last year - and Colombia-born Roger Canas.

Another likely to start is captain Andrei Finonchenko, the forward who scored the winning goal as a substitute on Saturday.

The warning signs are there for Celtic, but manager Lennon has ensured that they have plenty time to prepare in a new country, a five-hour time difference and a potentially awkward opponent.


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