It is the sixth time the teams have been drawn against one another in Europe. However, when on Thursday in Glasgow they face off for the 11th time in cross-border competition, it will be the first occasion that they will not be doing so in club football’s premier competition.
Of course, the two clubs would much rather be preparing for a Champions League campaign than an assault on the Europa League. For Celtic, though, the “transitional phase” Neil Lennon says the San Siro behemoths currently find themselves in, ought to make them more on the level of the Scottish champions. Celtic have only once beaten Milan. The significance of their 2-1 victory at Parkhead in October 2007 is greater than that, though. It is the only time that Celtic have ever defeated a current holder of the European Cup/Champions League.
Oh so close
They have run Milan mighty close on two other occasions. A 1-0 aggregate loss was the outcome when the pair met in the quarter-finals of the European Cup in 1969. It was a tie that preceded one of the game’s grandees going on to win the trophy for the second time. Meanwhile, Lennon has first-hand memories of how Milan set themselves up to capture the big cup for the seventh, and last time, in 2006/07. He was a member of the Gordon Strachan side that proved the toughest nut to crack in the last 16 that season, Celtic’s first appearance in the knock-out stages. A tense 0-0 draw in the Glasgow home leg, gave way to an equally edgy return in Italy, that was only settled in the home side’s favour by a Kaka goal in extra-time. After Celtic had a strong penalty claim rejected in normal time.
‘A couple of decisions went against us’
For the Irishman, it remains one his “major disappointments” competing in continental competition. “A couple of decisions went against in the San Siro,” said Lennon. “The first leg was pretty tight. You could see what it meant to them at the end of it — there was a lot of relief among the players. It was almost as if they got over a psychological hurdle and they’ve gone on to win it and beat some really good teams all the way. In 2004, we lost to Lyon in the last few minutes and would have made the last 16 if we’d made the point. It would be up there with disappointments. As it was the first time we’d made the last 16, that in itself was a fine achievement.”
Even if Milan, sixth-place finishers in Serie A last season, are no longer at that level, Lennon cautions against believing a team that will still boast modern great Zlatan Ibrahomivic as anything but the stiffest of opposition. A label that can also be applied to their other Europa League group foes Lille and Sparta Prague.
In transition, but still quality
“AC Milan have made a great start to the league campaign. They won three out of three,” he said. “The coach [Stefano Pioli] has come in and settled things down. There was talk of him maybe leaving last season but he’s extended his stay and I think he’s rebuilding. They’re in a transitional phase from where they were in the mid-90s and mid-noughties, but they’re still a quality side.
"We’re very much looking forward to the game. They had outstanding sides in the past. Under [Carlo] Ancelotti they won it in 2007, and obviously they lost in the final to Liverpool in 2005. They had that great team in the Eighties/early Nineties under Sacchi with the Dutch boys. They always carry a physical threat and have good athletes in the team, sprinkled with great defenders. They’re technically very, very strong as well.”
Lennon admits he may have a special weapon in his quest to out-think Milan, courtesy of Diego Laxalt’s recruitment on loan from the Italians last month. The draw might have been considered to place the Uruguayan in an awkward situation. But Lennon maintains the 27-year-old has no qualms about featuring against his parent club.
“He wants to just play well for us,” Lennon said. “He made it clear he wanted to come and play here and he’s fully focused and excited at the season that lies ahead for him. He knows he’s going to be an integral part of the squad. He’s probably been unfortunate not to play more for AC Milan. He had a good spell at Torino last season and he’s been a brilliant player for his country over the last few years.
“This situation isn’t angsty with AC Milan and he was given permission to play as part of the deal so both clubs are quite relaxed about it. It can leave you with a bit of a bloody nose sometimes. Barcelona were OK with Philippe Coutinho playing against them and it might have come back and bit them [with him scoring twice for Bayern Munich in the 7-2 win over them in the Champions League semi-final] but he’s back playing with his parent club. Once his English is better and my Spanish is better, I’ll be getting info from him...Of course we’ll be leaning on Diego a lot in the coming days before the game. It’s great that he’s free to play against them. That will be a bit of extra motivation for them.
“I’ve watched a bit of Milan so far. They played Spezia at home. They had quite a young side out and won that comfortably. They’ve got strength in depth and have made a great start to the Serie A campaign. I don’t think they’re at the levels they were, but that’s understandable and I think they’re in a re-building process.”