ONE name leapt out when Celtic learned their Europa League group opponents yesterday lunchtime.
And although Ajax and Fenerbahce are fabled footballing institutions, the appellation that held greatest appeal didn’t belong to a Dutch club or a Turkish side but a Dutchman playing with a Turkish team. Striker Robin van Persie has that cache.
It wasn’t a great day for the 32-year-old yesterday. New Netherlands manager Danny Blind announced that Van Persie would no longer captain the country, with the duties handed to Arjen Robben. But Van Persie, who accepted his vice-captain role with grace and said he would always give his “everything” for the Oranje, probably doesn’t have too many angst-ridden moments as he adapts to his new life in Istanbul. The move to Fenerbahce from Manchester United in the summer is thought to be worth almost £15 million to the veteran.
Celtic supporters won’t see a Van Persie in his prime when Fenerbahce – who also boast Portugal internationals Nani and Bruno Alves and Brazilian Diego – visit the east end of Glasgow for matchday two in Group A on 1 October. One Celtic player has done so, though. Early in his Sunderland career, in October 2007, Craig Gordon travelled with Roy Keane’s team to the Emirates Stadium for an encounter that Van Persie made his own.
Inside seven minutes he whipped a free-kick straight over the head of the Scotland keeper and in off the crossbar and then settled a see-saw encounter with a goal late on. It was the first time that Gordon had been beaten twice by the same player following his £9m move from Hearts. Yet, though he ruefully remembers that afternoon, his jousting with the Dutchman wasn’t entirely one-sided.
“I also remember having some good games against him at the Stadium of Light [the sides’ drawing 1-1 there in October 2008],” said Gordon. “He is a world-class striker. He has been around and has some great experience. That is what you want to test yourself against; good players and good teams. I look forward to that.
“Technically, he is fantastic. His goalscoring record wherever he has been is fantastic. I will be up against a tough opponent there. But there is not only him. There are a few other decent players in that team as well, with Nani there.
“He is another top-quality performer who has done it on the European stage before. We are obviously going in against some tough teams and some great players. But that is what you want to do in European competition.”
Gordon wanted to be pitting himself against stellar performers in the Champions League, of course. But that was denied Ronny Deila’s side because they were found wanting against the less-than-stellar performers of Malmo in Tuesday’s play-off.
The 31-year-old offered “possibly” when asked if the glamour element of Celtic’s Europa League draw could ease the pain of the dismal defeat in the Swedbank Stadium.
“It wouldn’t really matter,” he said. “Our job is the same regardless of who is in the group. They are big games against teams that everybody has heard of and has a good tradition of doing well in European competition. There is some big games in there. Hopefully, that means we will get good crowds, good atmospheres and good games. We have to move on. We have a game this weekend [at home to St Johnstone this afternoon], a good Europa League draw, some difficult matches in that and big games. We have to look forward and do the best we can.”
What went so badly awry in midweek has been debated and dissected by the Celtic squad in the proper, private fashion, according to Gordon, who remains favourably disposed towards zonal marking despite the loss of three goals from corners in the two games against Malmo.
“We have spoken about the loss quite a bit with the manager ourselves and in little groups,” he said. “We have done analysis and had a chat about where we think we have gone wrong.
“That will help us in the long run. It is obviously not nice just now. But hopefully we can learn from that as a squad and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“We have all had a chat about it and all put our thoughts into the group and where we thought it all went wrong and I think we should probably keep that to ourselves.
“It was a very good discussion. Everybody said what they thought and it was very open. I think if we are going to get the best out of that we probably have to keep that to ourselves and make sure that we move forward.”