Ronny Deila’s team begin their campaign in Austria tomorrow night against Red Bull Salzburg in a Group D which also includes Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb and Romanian Cup holders Astra Giurgiu.
After the disappointment of failing to reach the Champions League group stage for the first time in three years, there is a sense that Europa League football will prove to be a significantly less rewarding experience for Celtic. But Sutton, a key member of the Parkhead squad which memorably reached the Uefa Cup final in 2003 following an agonising Champions League exit on away goals to Basel, insists European football’s secondary club competition is worth treating with the utmost seriousness.
“Celtic should prioritise the Europa League now,” said Sutton. “They can afford to drop points in the Premiership and still win it, because they are by far and away the best team in Scotland.
“But from my point of view, the players will get a real shot in the arm from performing in the Europa League. There’s no reason why they can’t do that. They have top players, the likes of Kris Commons and Scott Brown, and they have young players who can grow in the tournament.
“I think Celtic is a Champions League club but in the end they’ve got what they deserved this season. In many respects, they weren’t good enough to qualify for the Champions League.
“I’ve been there myself and suffered the disappointment. They’ve got to use that feeling as a tool to progress in the Europa League now. From my experience at Celtic, that galvanised us and I’d like to think the same would happen to this group of players.”
Sutton, speaking to promote BT Sport’s exclusively live coverage of the game in Salzburg, has become bemused by the prevailing attitude among English Premier League clubs to the Europa League where it has become almost an afterthought.
“There are things I don’t understand about the mentality of clubs in England when it comes to the Europa League,” he added.
“Players work all season to finish in a European place. Then, when they get there, the clubs play youth or reserve team players and get knocked out early. It doesn’t make any sense to me.
“Celtic will try and win everything and I think they should really go for this campaign because they have everything to gain. They will win the domestic league comfortably because they have the best players. But I would like to see them really compete in the Europa League and I think they can.
“My view is that if they get their best 11 players on the pitch, they are a strong team who can compete with anybody.
“The domestic treble is still on for them, but I think this competition is one where the players will want to be judged and compete and I would be exactly the same.”
Sutton believes Celtic manager Deila recruited wisely in the closing days of the transfer window with the acquisition of players who can improve the areas of the team which failed in the Champions League defeats against Legia Warsaw and Maribor.
“He has tried to address the problems I felt they had up top by bringing in players with pace and a bit of size,” Sutton said. “Hopefully they’ll now have the ability to score more goals. They have to be able to defend well and have a threat on the counter attack. Kris Commons, Anthony Stokes and Leigh Griffiths are clever players but while I wouldn’t say they became too predictable, they didn’t have size or pace. Now with Aleksandar Tonev and Wakaso Mubarak, they have the opportunity to counter attack away from home. Hopefully Stefan Scepovic will give them an aerial threat too.
“It’s all very well having philosophies as a manager, but you have to find a way of winning. If trying to play through teams isn’t working, then you need to have the tools to go longer and be more direct. There’s nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with scoring goals from crosses. You have to win games, that’s the pressure of playing for a team like Celtic.
“To be fair to the manager, he has realised that now. He has tried to make the changes. He came in and tried to stamp his style on the team but sometimes the way he’s wanted to play hasn’t suited the players. Now he has addressed that.
“We all have to accept it does take time and the results in the Champions League were disappointing. But you can’t judge someone on 11 competitive games, he needs longer than that.”
Sutton regards the return of Scott Brown, who made his comeback from injury in Saturday’s 2-1 league win against Aberdeen, as a major boost to Celtic’s Europa League prospects but also feels more of the captain’s team-mates should follow the example he sets.
“It interested me on Saturday just how much impact and influence Scott has,” said Sutton. “It was evident for all to see. It’s a really big thing for the manager to have him back in the team.
“For the other players, I hope that more leaders come from this group. They are a young team. Virgil van Dijk is a good player and I’m pleased his situation has been sorted out. But if he wants to progress as a player, there’s no reason why he can’t take on more of a leadership mantle, rather than everyone just looking to Scott Brown.
“Scott changes the whole dimension of the Celtic team. They look more solid in defence and have more drive in attack. That’s the influence he has. But you need more players like that to become a better side.”