Celtic face trip to Eastern Europe or Malta in Champions League qualifier

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Celtic captain Scott Brown is focusing on leading his side back to the Champions League group stages (Martin Rickett/PA)

Celtic face a trip to Eastern Europe or Malta in their opening Champions League qualifier after UEFA confirmed the groupings for Tuesday’s first-round draw.

The seeded Scottish champions have been told they will face either Malta’s Valletta, Bosnian league winners FK Sarajevo, FK Sutjeska Niksic of Montenegro, Albanian’s Partizani or Saburtalo of Georgia.

It means there will be no repeat of 2017’s controversial trip to Linfield, when striker Leigh Griffiths was targeted with a bottle thrown from the home support in Belfast.

The draw takes place at noon UK time in Nyon, Switzerland and will be followed by the draw for round two.

The Hoops – who only rounded off their historic triple treble campaign against Hearts at Hampden 23 days ago – are due back in action on July 9 or 10 for the first leg.

Skipper Scott Brown has had just three weeks to recharge his batteries since then but insists his side are already going full steam ahead as they bid to clinch a return to the group stages.

In that time since he lifted the Scottish Cup, Brown has squeezed in a trip to Greece with his family as well as a few days in Edinburgh taking part in the latest stage of his UEFA A Licence coaching course.

But it was back to business on Monday as he rejoined the majority of Neil Lennon’s triple-treble winning squad at their Lennoxtown base to begin their pre-season preparations.

And whoever Brown’s side face, he is confident they will have enough in the tank despite last season’s record-breaking efforts.

“I got a nice couple days of holiday – it’s been lovely!” joked the former Scotland captain.

“I got five and six days away here and there with my A Licence course in between that so I’ve been kept busy.

“It’s part and parcel of the game now. It’s almost 12 months a year now and there’s no holiday time or time to relax.

“The Champions League is huge for this club and we deserve to be in it.

“But we have to make sure we are in it. We’ve got to do the hard work before we can get there.

“There’s been a lot of talk over the last few months about expanding the Champions League but – as it stands – we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do and for us it means early games.

“We have to be up to scratch but I suppose it means less running in pre-season because we’re straight into the games. So you’ve got to think about it both ways.”

Brown’s team-mates like Callum McGregor and James Forrest have had even less time to refresh given their Scotland commitments.

They racked up their 69th and 64th games of a gruelling campaign against Belgium last week respectively and will be given less than 10 days off before joining up with the rest of their Hoops team-mates next week.

Now Brown has called for a scheduling rethink before one of his colleagues suffers a mishap through overuse.

He said: “I think the SFA could help us out a little bit. They could look at the fixture list and take into consideration the number of games guys like Callum McGregor is playing.

“He’s played 69 games in a season and now has a week-and-a-half off.

“It’s hard for us to get everyone’s balance right but here’s hoping in the next couple of years they can help us and everyone else out.

“It would help most clubs (to have a longer break) and allow players to come back fresher and not just keep going until someone breaks down.”

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