IT WAS wholly appropriate that there was a touch of the theatrical in the manner Celtic’s fate in the Europa League last 32 draw was determined yesterday.
The Scottish champions were left in suspense right until the end of the ceremony at Uefa’s Nyon headquarters before they landed the undisputed tie of the round against Internazionale.
Former Liverpool goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek, this season’s official Uefa ambassador for the Europa League final which will staged in his home city of Warsaw, grinned as he made an elaborate show of needlessly swirling the final ball around the pot before pulling it out and pairing Inter with Celtic.
Uefa general secretary Gianni Infantino then became the first, but certainly not the last, to reference that the tie is a rematch of one of continental football’s most storied contests, the 1967 European Cup Final in Lisbon when Celtic eclipsed Inter 2-1 to lift the trophy.
In terms of nostalgia and glamour, also taking the dramatic 1972 European Cup semi-final between the clubs into account, Celtic’s current marketing men could not have hand-picked a more profitable tie. The top tier of Celtic Park, closed for all three less appetising matches in the Europa League group stage against Dinamo Zagreb, Astra and Salzburg, will be very much open for business again when Inter arrive for the first leg on 19 February.
Ronny Deila has certainly been granted his wish for the kind of high profile contest which provides him with the chance to manage Celtic in front of a capacity home crowd in Europe for the first time.
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In terms of offering the prospect of further progress in the tournament, however, the tie is perhaps less favourable for the Norwegian coach. The bookies have already made up their minds, initially pricing Inter at 1-4 to win the tie with Celtic available at 11-4.
The Italian side undoubtedly retain the status which also makes them one of the overall favourites to go all the way and lift the trophy next May. But Celtic will nonetheless take some optimism from Inter’s unconvincing form so far this season.
Ahead of last night’s match away to Chievo, they had failed to win any of their previous Serie A fixtures as they currently languish in a mid-table position. So far, the decision to sack Walter Mazzarri as coach last month and bring Roberto Mancini back for a second spell in charge has failed to reap a notable dividend.
Mancini did complete the job in Group F of the Europa League where Inter were unbeaten against Dnipro of Ukraine, Qarabag of Azerbaijan and French side St Etienne. It is clear, however, that Inter have diminished significantly since the heady days of 2010 under the guidance of Jose Mourinho when they last won Serie A and also became European champions for the third time in their history.
There are no shortage of high quality names dotted throughout Inter’s present first team squad. They include former Manchester United captain Nemanja Vidic in defence, highly-touted Croatian playmaker Mateo Kovacic and the the firepower of Argentinian striker Mauro Icardi.
But Mancini, who last week named former Arsenal and Barcelona defender Sylvinho as his assistant, is already eyeing next month’s transfer window with a view to revamping his team for the second half of the season.
Marco Fassone, the managing director of Inter, is relishing the tie against Celtic but also pointed out that his club cannot afford to spend too lavishly before the February showdown comes around.
“We have to try and win this competition as the Europa League is now one of the paths to get into the Champions League next season,” said Fassone.
“There are five challenging rounds between now and Warsaw, starting with this one against Celtic. We’ll do everything we can to accomplish our goal and win the Europa League.
“We’ve got some pressure on us because of our league position which we didn’t think we’d have at the beginning of the season, now we have to get points and move up the table.
“We have to discuss the transfer market with the coach. We’ve been clear with Mancini from the beginning, and he’s been on board with the project - we have to meet Financial Fair Play regulations. I spoke with the leaders of Uefa here in Nyon, we have to be careful not to breach the regulations with spending in January.
“We have two months to work with before the Europa League tie and we hope to climb the Serie A table in that time. We have to look at the next five games of the season and try to get as many points as possible. When we get to the beginning of February we’ll look at the table and the coach will make the necessary decisions.
“It will be a tricky match against Celtic but, either way, they were all difficult opponents in this round. Celtic have a great tradition and this has the feel of a Champions League tie, due to the history of both clubs.
“There will be an incredible atmosphere at Celtic Park in the first leg but we are ready to face that.
“Playing the second leg at home is a minor advantage for us. It will be one of the most exciting ties of the round.”
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