Champions League: Celtic face unfamiliar foes in familiar territory in Astana

Celtic v Karagandy
Celtic faced Kazak opposition in 2013 in the shape of Shakhtar Karagandy, winning 3-2 on aggregate

For the second time in just under three years, Celtic are in Kazakhstan for the latest chapter in their bid to reach the Champions League group stage.

The last time they achieved that feat three years ago, they encountered the Astana Arena along the way.

While they lost that particular battle against sheep sacrificers Shakhtar Karagandy, they won the war, recovering from a 2-0 first-leg defeat to progress 3-2 on aggregate at the play-off stage.

That was arguably the last truly stirring European performance by a Celtic side, with their inspiration partly drawn from the wild Shakhtar celebrations after the first leg.

To illustrate the growing size of the task facing Brendan Rodgers and his players if they are to return to Europe's top table, they have returned to this mid-Asian outpost a round earlier and will face a superior team to the one who beat them on their last visit.

Former Bulgaria coach Stanimir Stoilov guided his FC Astana side to the fabled group stage last season and while they didn't register a win in a section containing eventual runners-up Atletico Madrid, Benfica and Galatasaray, they drew four of their six games and were unbeaten at home.

'Astana can definitely win this game'

Kazakhstan international Mark Gurman played for Astana during the first half of the season. He was also part of the Kairat Almaty side that knocked Aberdeen out of Europe last season, playing both legs of their Europa League tie at left back.

"I think after this week's match we will know who is going to go through; Celtic should expect a hard game," Gurman told BBC Scotland.

"It'll be difficult because of the distance between the countries and the synthetic pitch. The European teams normally play on grass, so this is going to be a problem.

Shakhtar Karagandy 2-0 Celtic
Celtic lost 2-0 to Shakhtar Karagandy in 2013 in the same stadium as they will face Astana

"Astana's best player is [Colombian midfielder] Roger Canas, he played in Shakhtar's team against Celtic three years ago and [Macedonia midfielder] Agim Ibraimi has began to adapt to our championship.

"They've lost the captain (forward Tanat Nusserbayev, who is injured), he's a big loss, but they also now have two good strikers - [Congolese] Junior Kabananga and [Serb] Dorde Despotovic - so the coach can change easily.

"Also, I don't know if Celtic have the big names in their team that they had when they played Shakhtar. Astana can definitely win this game."

Gurman agrees with the consensus that Astana will represent a tougher hurdle to overcome than the Karagandy team Neil Lennon's side scraped past.

"It is my opinion that they are better than Shakhtar were three years ago, he added.

"They are quite defensive, they don't want to concede goals, there's big discipline with this team.

'Everybody knows the strengths of Astana now'

"Everyone knows where they must play, everyone knows what they must do. They work like a team.

"I don't think they'll rush to score two or three goals against Celtic; the most important thing for them will be to not concede."

Astana v Atletico Madrid
Astana faced last season's Champions League runners up Atletico Madrid in the group stage

The club Celtic will face were only formed in 2009 but have won the last two Kazakhstan Premier League titles and are well placed to make it a hat-trick - leading by seven points, with a game in hand, 21 games into their season.

They have also had the support of the aforementioned Shakhtar, who agreed to postpone their weekend fixture against the champions to aid their bid to return to the group stage, having become the first Kazakhstani side to reach it last year.

Gurman thinks their unknown quality went a long way last season and believes it will be difficult to replicate that success.

"This season will be hard for them because in my opinion last season nobody thought about Astana. Other teams who played against them thought it would be an easy game," he added.

"This season it will be another story. I think all the teams - including Celtic - will prepare very well for this game.

"Everybody knows the strengths of Astana now."