Just as he did when Celtic previously reached the last 32 of the Europa League three years ago, Roberto Mancini stands in the way of the Scottish champions making further progress in the tournament.
Back in February 2015, Mancini was in charge of Inter Milan when they defeated Ronny Deila’s Celtic 4-3 in a memorable tie.
The task facing Brendan Rodgers’ side on 15 and 22 February next year is no less daunting, with Mancini now at the helm of a free-scoring and big-spending Zenit St Petersburg outfit who are among the favourites to win the Europa League this season.
Rodgers, pictured, is well acquainted with Mancini, having come close to becoming the Italian’s assistant at Manchester City in the summer of 2010, and is looking forward to pitting his wits against him in the technical areas at Celtic Park and the Krestovsky Stadium in western Russia.
“He’s a good man, Roberto,” said Rodgers. “I was out of work at that time back in 2010 and between jobs after leaving Reading. I was wondering if I was going to get another manager’s job or not.
“I wanted to still be a manager but it was always strategic for me. There was only a certain number of clubs where I could have gone to. When I’d been rejected from Reading, the next job was critical for me. I had left Watford because I felt I could move my career quicker at Reading, so I’d had two jobs in a year. One went well, the other not so well, so I was at a crossroads. I didn’t know if I’d get another job or not. I’d applied for three jobs and never even got an interview.
“At that stage I thought I might struggle. Statistically, the numbers tell you as well, especially first time managers, don’t get another chance. This was me sacked from my second job, so I thought I might need to go and be a number two somewhere. I was still early on in my plan. The strategy was to become a manager at 38 – I was actually one at 35. So I was still within my timeline. I didn’t have anything lined up towards the end of the season and I got a call out of the blue from Manchester City. They were looking to get someone in to coach for the following season because they were trying to develop this style of football. I was invited up to one of the games – I think it was when Tottenham won 1-0 towards the end of the season – and it was to meet the staff and get an idea of what the Manchester City project was at that time.
“They were great. They also flew me out to meet Roberto in Milan at the end of the season and I spent a bit of time with him there. We talked through a few possibilities. But it was in that period I got the chance to go to Swansea, so the move to City didn’t materialise. But I got to know Roberto and I played against him plenty of times, of course, when I was at Swansea and then Liverpool. I always enjoyed his company. I was asked to speak to City back in 2010 because of my coaching at Chelsea, I’d worked with big players and communicated with big players. If I couldn’t get a manager’s job, that was the next best place to go, especially as the City project was very exciting. But, as I say, the Swansea opportunity came along and it was David Platt who joined Roberto at City.”
Zenit are familiar foes for Rodgers, who faced them at the same stage of the Europa League in 2013 when his Liverpool side lost out on away goals.
“It is a lovely place, a gorgeous city,” added Rodgers.
“When I was there with Liverpool they had the likes of Hulk playing for them and Luciano Spalletti was the manager. “We were out there in the first leg and they won 2-0. We needed three to win at Anfield. It was probably the only mistake Jamie Carragher made when I was there, he was short with a backpass and Hulk scored. It meant we needed four but we got to three. We had half an hour to get another one. We hit the post, everything, but we just couldn’t get another one. It finished up three each and we went out on away goals.”
Zenit went second in the Russian Premier League table after drawing 0-0 away to Akhmat Grozny last night, their final fixture before their domestic season closes down for the winter. It does not re-open until March, meaning Zenit will have no recent competitive action under their belts when they play Celtic.
“It’s a little bit like the challenges we face at the start of a season, coming straight into the qualifiers when some of the teams we play are already in their domestic season,” observed Rodgers. “Naturally, it’s difficult. Zenit will be back in training, I suppose, some time in January, trying to get ready for the tie against us.
“They will have a breather, a break and they will have winter training somewhere. Of course, if you are in rhythm, in mid-season, it is better but they will see it as something they just have to get over. Whoever we were going to get it was going to be tough.
“Thankfully for us, this tie is still a bit of time away so it gives us a period to hopefully be a better team when we get around to playing them.”