Celtic’s Champions League campaign continues on Wednesday evening with the visit of relatively unknown Estonian side Nõmme Kalju to Parkhead for the 1st leg of the Second Qualifying Round tie. Notably, this will be the first occasion that Celtic has played a side from Estonia in European competition.
Being somewhat of an unknown quantity to the vast majority of the Celtic support, I spoke with Estonian football expert Pierre-Julien Pera to help spill the beans and shed some light on what we can expect Kalju over the next fortnight.
Nomme Kalju will be an unknown quantity to most Celtic fans. What can you tell us about the history of the club?
Estonia, as we know it today, is a quite young country, gaining independence from Russia in 1991. As such, almost all Estonian teams are quite young too. Nõmme Kalju was a pre-WWII club that disappeared during the Soviet era before being re-established 1997 and later bought over by current Kuno Tehva and turned into the team it is today.
Since then, it has become one of the biggest teams in the country, and regularly challenges for honours. Nõmme Kaljuwon its first national title in 2012, which was a surprise due to the domination of Flora and Levadia, both from Tallinn. The title won last year is their second one, at the end of a great season in which the team didn’t lose a single league game (25W, 11D, 0L).
Surprisingly, things quickly got harder this year, even although they made few changes during the close season. Due to the bad start of the season, their title-winning coach, Sergei Frantsev, resigned and was replaced in April by Roman Kozhukhovskyi. However, with Flora and FCI Levadia back on form in the league, it seems unlikely that Kalju will successfully defend their title.
The team is located in Nõmme, a southern suburb of Tallinn and usually play in their Hiiu Staadion, with a good fanbase(for Estonian standards) that has grown in the last few years. The atmosphere is quite good in their Hiiu Staadion, but the game against Celtic won’t be played there as the stadium does not fit European regulations and is very small. Instead, the game will be played in the A. Le Coq Arena, the biggest stadium in the country. For sure, Celtic fans will be much more numerous than the NK fans, and will be much louder!
The President of Kalju, Kuno Tehva, has likened Celtic’s visit to that Heavy Metal band Metallica who recently played in Tallinn. Is the Celtic game the biggest in Kalju’shistory?
Without any doubt! As far as I can remember, I can’t recall a game between an Estonian side against a former European champion; at least not in the last 10 years. Simple as that, this game is big news!
Nõmme Kalju’s biggest European games to date took place in 2014, against Polish side Lech Poznan where Kalju won 1-0 at home but were eliminated on aggregate. In the 2016-17 Europa League season, they reached the 3rd round eliminating Trakai, from Lithuania, and Maccabi Haifa (on pens), before being knocked-out by Turkish side Osmanlispor. It was the first, and only time an Estonian team got through two rounds.
When they were champions in 2012, Nõmme Kalju won against HJK Helsinki and lost to Viktoria Plzen. Not teams as legendary as Celtic! That’s why this game is one of the greatest in Estonian football history, if not the greatest one.
Estonia feels very lucky this year. After a great qualification against Serbian side Radnicki Nis, Flora Tallinn will play against Eintracht Frankfurt in the 2nd Europa League round; a very classy draw.
Sander Puri, who has experience of Scottish football with St. Mirren (he even made his debut for St. Mirren against Celtic), is probably the best-known player in the squad. What does he bring to the Kalju team?
Puri is a very experienced player, who has played almost 80 games with the national team, and his experience is very important in this kind of game. He is a steady performer and has the advantage of being able to play on both wings without any problem.
Who else should we look out for as dangermen? Brazilian forward Liliu who scored the last-minute winner against Shkendija in the previous round seems to be goal machine in Estonia. Can he cause the Celtic backline problems?
Liliu is without any doubt the main danger. He has been the best player of the team last year, scoring 31 goals and providing 15 assists in 30 leagues games last season. It’s been a bit harder this year, with only 9 goals and 6 assists in his 19 league games, but he’s still one of the best players of the team.
He’s a quite technical player able to score in any position inside the box, but who also scored with beautiful 30m or more strikes. His main failure is that he can quickly forget his teammates trying to resolve everything on his own.
Apart from Liliu, the other players I could mention are Robert Kirss, who mostly plays as a second striker behind Liliu, and the Italian centre-half Maximiliano Uggè, who’s the captain of the team. Uggè is a threat in the air at corners and free-kicks, and also takes Kalju’s penalty kicks should they win one against Celtic. However, despite his defensive partnership with Avilov very physical, they are both extremely slow.
Kalju were underdogs against Shkendrija in the last round – what was the reaction to their win in Estonia?
Football is not a big affair in Estonia. It has always been seen as a Russian sport, however, the national federation is trying to make it more attractive to more people.
Not all teams in the league are fully professional. Some have fans due to their popularity (Flora, Levadia), or thanks to a regional or local spirit (Kalju, Tammeka Tartu, Paide, Viljandi), but there is no ultra culture, except for a small number of Flora and Levadia fans; this is mainly as a result of the Estonian against Russian background.
The atmosphere is always friendly and easy-going in all stadiums, with some fans, people walking around, sometimes sitting on the grass (when it’s not too cold) and many kids playing around the fields, in inflatable castles… It’s really enjoyable!
Except for the Flora-Levadia derby, there is almost no rivalry in Estonian football. People who are interested in it support any team involved in European games. So, people will support Kalju and Flora in their games, but the A. Le Coq Arena won’t be full; it rarely sells out even for the national team games. That’s why Celtic fans getting there will not have any problem with locals, and will for sure be the loudest in the stadium!
What is your prediction for the tie? Can Kalju pull off another shock win?
Even if I would like to see them getting a good result, I’m giving Nõmme Kalju absolutely no chance against Celtic. After an awful first leg against Shkendija, the victory in Macedonia was a surprisingly good achievement.
Nõmme Kalju was a powerful team in the midfield last year, not losing many balls and pressuring quite high to get it back. I felt a bit surprised and disappointed to see it becoming a full defensive team against Shkendija, playing incredibly low on the pitch, and only throwing long balls to Liliu. The first leg was an awful game from them.
For sure, the team will play the same against Celtic, allowing Celtic to have the ball and trying its luck on the counter-attack. In my opinion, Nõmme Kalju has no chance, and getting a draw on one of the games would be a very good result.
Pierre-Julien writes for footballski.fr