There is much to get the juices flowing in the ties Celtic have been handed in the Europa League.
AC Milan are one of the grandees of the game. Lille are currently purring along in France, sitting second to a Rennes side two points better off. Meanwhile, Sparta Prague are tearing up their league, with the Czech team boasting full points from five games that have yielded 18 goals. There was, however, only one headline act. When Zlatan Ibrahimovic is involved, he is always the headline act.
The Swedish phenomenon, a brash, singular showman as well as a stupendous striker, has the opportunity to bookend a remarkable career courtesy of his Milanese side’s Group H commitments. At the age of 19, and then a wunderkind for Ajax, he played 25 minutes at Celtic Park as the Dutch side lost out to Martin O’Neill’s team for a Champions League place in August 2001.
The experience never left him, and down the years he was often linked with the Celtic of his idol Henrik Larsson as a result of his desire to return to the east end of Glasgow. “I have played in the biggest games of world football,” said the man with an outrageous CV in having claimed honours with Barcelona, Manchester United, Juventus, Milan, Inter, Paris-Saint Germain and Ajax. “But I have never experienced an atmosphere like I did at Celtic Park.”
As he celebrates his 39th birthday, he has no prospect of sampling such an ambience in the October 22 group stage opener. The restrictions on spectators necessitated by the global pandemic ensure that. Even if the 116-times capped Swede - who has 488 goals at club level and has netted 14 times in 22 games since returning to AC Milan from LA Galaxay last December - claims he has conquered that too after testing positive for Covid-19 last week. “Covid had the courage to challenge me. Bad idea,” he said in typically egocentric fashion on twitter.
The gloom among the Celtic support over the exacting nature of their latest Europa League group has many feeling the bad idea would be their team putting everything into challenging for the top two places when the real target this season is a record-breaking 10th straight championship.
Manager Neil Lennon doesn’t think continental aspirations need interfere with domestic duties they dare not falter in. Even when this week shows how difficult that juggling act can be. Following their 1-0 play-off win over FK Sarajevo, Celtic only touched down from Bosnia and Herzegovina on Friday afternoon - around 40 hours before they will be in action at noon away to St Johnstone.
“We had it last season and it didn’t affect us,” Lennon said, referring to Celtic retaining pole position in the Premiership as they claimed top spot in a Europa League section containing Lazio and Rennes. “We want European football and I think they both complement each other. I think it makes us better. It’s going to be Thursday-Sunday games. But that’s what we want. The players want it and I know the fans want it as well.”