Belfast braces for high-octane visit of Celtic

Scottish champions Celtic should not have too many problems on the pitch with Northern Irish title holders Linfield in their Champions League second qualifying round first leg on Friday, but they can expect a hostile reception.

The first ever meeting of the two teams will also be the first Champions League game to be played on a Friday — to avoid clashing with the tinderbox date of July 12, when Protestants celebrate King William of Orange beating the deposed Catholic ruler James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

While Celtic retain a Catholic heritage, Linfield’s associations are Protestant, and there will be no Celtic fans present at Windsor Park.

The Scottish champions turned down Linfield’s offer of 3,000 tickets, a stark contrast to their game against nationalist leaning Cliftonville in Belfast four years ago, when it appeared the entire crowd were best friends.

But even then, with no Linfield involvement, Celtic fans were warned not to wear their jerseys while walking the streets of Belfast before the game.

Indeed Wednesday’s commemorations for the Battle of the Boyne anniversary showed there was little love for Celtic.

There were green and white shirts on many of the traditional bonfires built for the occasion, with Scott Sinclair, Celtic’s English winger, singled out for racist abuse on one particularly distasteful banner.

Celtic fans, many of whom travel regularly from Ireland to Scotland, were disappointed by their club’s decision to reject the offer of tickets from Linfield.

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers, born less than an hour north of Linfield’s Windsor Park, expressed his own disappointment with the news, arguing “it’s a different country now”.

– ‘Nice little edge to it’ –

Rodgers, who has not been to Windsor Park, which is also where the national side play, since he was 14, admits not having the supporters there is a drawback.

“I don’t see it as a bad tie for us. The only negative to it is that our supporters won’t be there,” Rodgers told reporters.

“I haven’t been back to Windsor Park since I was 14. I played in a schoolboy game against Brazil and it was the last time I was there.

“Not even to watch a game. With work, I just never got to go back. So I haven’t seen the revamped stadium and I’m looking forward to it.

“There will be a nice little edge to it. Sometimes early games don’t have that but this is a nice one.

“But the most important objective for us is to win. The stuff that surrounds it doesn’t concern me at all.

“I don’t think I’ve ever taken a team to a place with no away fans.”

The 5pm local time (1600GMT) kick off is another reflection of the sensitive nature of this tie.

Celtic, Scottish treble winners last season, are 1/12 favourites to win, while Linfield, who won a league and Cup double last season, are cast as major outsiders.

David Healy’s side need not look too far into the past to see hope, though, as Lincoln Red Imps, of Gibraltar, defeated Celtic at the same stage last season — though Celtic did enough in the second leg to progress.

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