Andrew Smith: Why Celtic should give up on the Europa League this season

There is no getting away from the fact that it is a scunner of a Europa League section into which Celtic have been pitched.

Neil Lennon should use the AC Milan game to give a first start to Tom Rogic [pictured) in seven months (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

Indeed, for Neil Lennon’s men Group H might be short for Hopeless. No other assessment of possible qualification can be made when ranged against Italians AC Milan, league leaders in Europe’s third highest-ranked set-up, Lille, early pacesetters in France that sits fifth, and Sparta Prague, who boast a 100% record in heading up the more-than-decent Czech top flight.

Celtic, at their best and in the mood, might be capable of a feat they have accomplished only twice before - emerge from a group at the expense of a team from a big five league. By their own manager’s admission, though, they have failed to produce the fluency and cohesion that offers any genuine belief of remaining in Europe beyond Christmas.

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Of course, they did just that in a similar sort of Europa League section last season. They beat both Lazio and Rennes en route to becoming the first Celtic team to win a group in continental competition. The magnitude of that accomplishment is reflected in these teams have just been in Champions League action.

Apart from the more settled and sleek team Lennon was working with back then, the pursuit of a ninth straight title last year did not seem quite so over-bearing as the current quest for an historic 10-in-row. Indeed, the need to find their rhythm and bolster squad options to ensure they remain on Rangers coat-tails following the derby loss means Lennon should not be squeamish about seeing Group H encounters as opportunities to improve Premiership performances, first and foremost. He should be willing to give starts to such as Albian Ajeti, Leigh Griffiths, and Tom Rogic in the home opener on that very basis.

The limiting of Celtic’s options in the face of losing half of their first choice XI to Covid-19 issues and injury - through being denied the services of Odsonne Edouard, James Forrest, Christopher Jullien, Nir Bitton and Hatem Abd Elhamed for the meeting with the San Siro side - makes the Europa League a step too far for the Scottish champions. Lennon’s entire focus right now has to be about taking any steps he can to address domestic concerns.

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