Cliftonville manager Tommy Breslin has descried it as; the biggest game in the club’s history” but the players appear to be undaunted. “At home anything can happen”, said Reds striker Liam Boyce, “we’re not going to be in awe of Celtic even though they have quality players.”
Reds defender Jamie McGovern summed up the feelings of the North Belfast club; “Whenever the draw was being made, we always had one eye on Celtic and it was ‘What if’ – and it eventually came true.”
Tommy Breslin’s side go into the match with no new injury concerns. The same can’t be said for his counterpart Neil Lennon who returns to Northern Ireland in a competitive match for the first time in his managerial career.
Lennon has been forced into recalling defender Efe Ambrose early from his extended break following Nigeria’s involvement in the Confederations Cup due to injuries in defence. Despite the early return Lennon is confident the defender is fully prepared; “He had a heavy schedule with the Confederations Cup, had a holiday, did a little bit of training in Nigeria and then joined us yesterday and he looks fine.”
In addition to the injury list, Celtic also head into the match without midfielder Victor Wanayama who has been sold to Southampton for a fee of over £10 million while speculation continues to surround striker Gary Hooper who has been linked with a move to several English clubs including Norwich and QPR. “There are a couple of clubs interested and talks are ongoing but there is no confirmation on anything yet. I expect it to go ahead. I don’t know what club or what price but I would expect it to be concluded over the next week or two”, said Lennon.
Cliftonville can only dream of attracting that kind of fee for any of their players, but this fairytale tie will prove to be a great money spinner for the Reds. The game will be a sell out at Solitude with Cliftonville increasing the capacity of the ground to 5,000 in order to cope with ticket demands. 500 extra tickets went on sale on Tuesday morning and were snapped up within hours.
The positive vibe of the tie has been damped somewhat due to the violent protests in Belfast following twelfth of July celebrations. 71 police officers have been injured in the unrest and the PSNI have advised travelling fans not to wear Celtic colours in the city centre. Neither club appear to be concerned however with Media director for Cliftonville, David Begley, assuring fans “as always our club are focused on playing a football match”.
This sentiment was echoed at Tuesday’s press conference by Hoops boss Lennon who said; “Preparations have gone really well so far. It hasn’t had an impact on us and I am hoping the night will be remembered for all the right reasons. There might be things going on in the background that the police are working hard at but as far as we are aware this has just been a normal Champions League trip. We have been really well looked after.”
Tonight’s first leg Champions League qualifier between Cliftonville and Celtic kicks off at 7.45pm at Solitude. The match will be available on both BBC Northern Ireland and BBC Scotland.