There remains a shoulder-shrugging element to Celtic’s participation in a Europa League group phase that will begin on Thursday with the hosting of Rosenborg. It could hardly be any other way with a fifth meeting with the Norwegian champions inside 14 months.
Their previous four games all came in the Champions League qualifying stages, most recently a 3-1 aggregate defeat of Rosenborg only six weeks ago, but that second qualifying round success did not provide a staging post to a third straight season in club football’s most prestigious tournament.
Brendan Rodgers doesn’t pretend that is otherwise but with the Red Bull teams of Salzburg and Leipzig to come across the autumn, the Irishman can’t get caught up about the comedown of losing out to AEK Athens in the Champions League third qualifying round.
“The competition itself deserves the respect,” he said. “Every team would love to be in the Champions League but this year we aren’t. But we are still in the Europa League and for me European football is very important for us as a club. Our objective again will be to have European football after Christmas. Good group, tough games, but still exciting games and games the supporters should look forward to.”
Rosenborg could be dangerous, with the club in much better shape than six weeks ago. Amid player unrest, Rini Coolen had just been installed as head coach following the unexpected sacking of Kare Ingebrigtsen. In the nine games they have played since the two met in Trondheim, they have posted eight wins and a draw.
“Listen, they are a good side. Top side over there in Norway and have some good players. We saw that in the recent games. It was unstable there for a while with the manager leaving but, of course winning games can always change that. We know their style. That doesn’t change. It’s actually a nice city to go to. At least you are not going into the unknown; we know what to expect. So, we just deal with it.”
It is a similar story when it comes to being drawn with two teams who effectively have the same owner. Whatever Uefa and top officials at Red Bull might say, the tie-up between Salzburg and Leipzig cannot inspire confidence in the integrity of the competition.
“Absolutely,” Rodgers says of the two clubs having close links but he isn’t troubled by the fact. “I tend to not overthink it so much,” he said. “Your job is to go and play the game whoever you are playing. If you look after your own and do your job then hopefully that doesn’t come into it. But, yeah, two different sort of stories, though with the same backers. The stories are different.”
The story that Celtic supporters want is a tale of taking an unpromising situation and making a success of it. As they did in reaching the Uefa Cup final in 2003, their run to that showpiece a consolation for losing to Basel in the Champions League qualifiers.
“There is certainly an opportunity there,” Rodgers said. “It gives that opportunity, when you think of the level of opponent we’ve had in the first couple of Champions League campaigns [with teams such as Barcelona, Manchester City and Bayern Munich]. They’ve been very tough and the world’s best. But we play Leipzig, quarter-finalists of the Europa last year.
“Both those Red Bulls have been on a journey those last number of years so they will be tough games for us as well as the Rosenborg ones. The level, of course, isn’t quite the same as Bayern Munich but it doesn’t make it any less formidable.”