Celtic eyeing tilt at Real Madrid in Champions League

Anyone but Barca. Who would have imagined that Celtic could ever get bored by the prospect of facing Lionel Messi & Co in the world's greatest club competition?

Brendan Rodgers salutes Celtic fans after the 4-3 defeat at Astana. Picture: SNS.

Yet the sentiment which is being widely expressed among both players and supporters of the Scottish champions ahead of today’s Champions League group stage draw in Monaco is perhaps understandable.

In each of their last three seasons when Celtic have qualified for this phase, they have found themselves bracketed with Barcelona. Indeed, their connection with the Catalan giants stretches to no less than 12 European fixtures between the clubs in the previous 14 years.

Celtic: Get the latest team news, match previews and reports

Celtic: Get the latest team news, match previews and reports

It is a familiarity which certainly doesn’t breed contempt from Celtic’s perspective – how could it be so when one of the most celebrated nights in the club’s storied history came five years ago with the 2-1 win over Barca at Parkhead which helped Neil Lennon guide them to the last 16 of the competition?

Celtic are keen on a chance to face Cristiano Ronaldo in the Champions League group stage. Picture: Getty.

But as they prepare for their tenth group stage campaign – a landmark which draws them level with Rangers – there is a desire within the Celtic camp and throughout their fan base for a tilt at the other half of Spanish football’s big two.

Since the inception of the Champions League 25 years ago, the only time Real Madrid have travelled to Glasgow was for the final in 1992 when Zinedine Zidane’s sublime strike helped them defeat Bayer Leverkusen 2-1.

The fates have conspired to keep the 12-time European champions away from either Celtic Park or Ibrox in the group stage during that period. So there is a sense that the law of averages is due to hand Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers a head-to-head assignment against Zidane, now head coach of Real, when the plastic balls are drawn from the glass bowls at the Grimaldi Forum.

The odds at the draw are different this year, the first season in which only the champions from Europe’s top eight domestic leagues are in 
Pot 1. That means Barca, runners-up to Real in La Liga last season, find themselves in Pot 2 for the first time in 19 years.

Celtic are keen on a chance to face Cristiano Ronaldo in the Champions League group stage. Picture: Getty.

For Celtic, it simply adds to the degree of difficulty in terms of their likely opponents from the top two pots. But if holders Real are also the top-ranked club in the competition, Celtic would relish the glamour and freshness of seeing Cristiano Ronaldo, pictured below, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and the rest of the white-shirted luminaries in the east end of Glasgow.

The clubs have only met once before in competitive action, a dramatic European Cup quarter-final in 1980 when Real overturned a 2-0 first leg deficit with a 3-0 success in the 
Bernabeu.

Among the other heavyweights in Pot 1 are Bayern Munich. Celtic have not tangled with Germany’s most successful club since 2003-04 when Martin O’Neill’s squad lost 2-1 in Munich and drew 0-0 at Parkhead in the group stage of the Champions League.

Italian champions Juventus hold more recent memories, Celtic having lost 5-0 on aggregate to the Turin club in the last 16 of the competition five seasons ago. The man in charge of Juve on that occasion was Antonio Conte who could now find himself returning to Celtic Park with Chelsea, England’s representatives in Pot 1. Celtic have only ever faced Chelsea in friendly matches, the most recent a 4-2 defeat in Seattle back in 2004.

Benfica, the Portuguese champions, are almost as regular visitors to Parkhead as Barcelona. Celtic have faced them three times in the group stage of the Champions League, in 2006, 2007 and 2012.

If it is something different Celtic fans are seeking, then Monaco would fit the ball. French champions for the first time in 17 years, they have claimed Pot 1 status from Paris Saint-Germain. Celtic have never played the club from the principality, either competitively or in a friendly.

The two remaining Pot 1 possibilities both have fairly recent history with Celtic. Russian champions Spartak Moscow were memorably beaten on penalties in the final qualifying round in 2007-08 by Gordon Strachan’s squad, while Celtic then defeated them home and away in the successful 2012-13 group stage under Lennon.

Shakhtar Donetsk complete the line-up of top seeds and Celtic have mixed memories of facing the Ukrainians. The clubs met in the group stage in 2004-05 and 2007-08 – both teams won both of their home fixtures.

If Rodgers is to achieve his aim of taking Celtic beyond the group stage this season – either with a top two finish to reach the last 16 of the Champions League or a third place finish to make the last 32 of the Europa League after Christmas – then he will be eyeing the potential for taking points from a Pot 2 opponent.

But with the aforementioned Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain among those teams, the line-up is almost as daunting as Pot 1. It includes both Manchester clubs and Celtic can take encouragement from the two draws they fully merited against City in last season’s group stage.

With Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Sevilla and Porto making up the rest of Pot 2, there is no shortage of box-office names for Celtic to contemplate. Regardless of who comes their way at today’s glitzy draw ceremony, they should never feel anything less than thrilled to be among the 32 elite clubs in Europe.

The line-up in the draw as follows:

Pot One

Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Juventus, Benfica, Monaco, Spartak Moscow, Shakhtar Donetsk.

Pot Two

Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Paris St Germain, Borussia Dortmund, Sevilla, Manchester City, Porto, Manchester United.

Pot Three

Napoli, Tottenham Hotspur, Basel, Olympiacos, Anderlecht, Liverpool, Roma, Besiktas.

Pot Four

Celtic, CSKA Moscow, FK Qarabag, Sporting Lisbon, APOEL Nicosia, Feyenoord, Maribor, RB Leipzig.