A fanfare surely would have been expected to sound over Celtic’s imminent participation on the European stage post-Christmas for only the third time in almost a decade. It seems, though, to have been replaced by a fugue laced with ominous piercing squeaks and flat honks.
The change in tune over reaching the last 32 of the Europa League – strived for across a bruisingly-difficult Champions League group campaign – is owed to a variety of key notes. The other day, Brendan Rodgers said the Zenit St Petersburg side that will be hosted at Celtic Park on Thursday night are “stronger” than Anderlecht. The Belgians were the last continental side welcomed to Glasgow’s east end. Memories of the runaround they gave Rodgers’ side nine weeks ago, frankly, altered perceptions of the level Celtic are currently capable of competing at in Europe.
Moreover, it ensured their European home record in actual tournaments – rather than qualifiers – was given another dent. More than the five previous Champions League group opponents which Rodgers’ team had failed to beat at home, Anderlecht appeared to be in their footballing sphere. Yet Celtic couldn’t lay a glove on them and have since been delivered telling blows by Hearts and Kilmarnock on the domestic front.
The prowess of the Russian side managed by Roberto Mancini is in attack. Which offers another area of genuine concern for Celtic. With 17 goals, Zenit were the top scorers in the Europa League groups stages, breezing through to the knockout stages. With 18 goals conceded, Celtic proved the most porous team in the Champions League group stages, albeit they were ranged against a ruthless Paris Saint-Germain and European grandees Bayern Munich.
Celtic’s heavy losses were achieved with the defender Rodgers rates as his No.1, Dedryck Boyata. The Belgian will play no part on Thursday as the result of a groin injury meaning that – in perming two players from Jozo Simunovic, Kristoffer Ajer and newly-acquired and untried Jack Hendry – the Irishman will field a defence that has never performed together before at this level.
“You have to find a way,” he said. “The players will be up and ready for that.”
The one grain of comfort is that circumstances ought to dictate they are more ready than their Russian counterparts, owing to them having being in their off-season. They haven’t played competitively since a final pre-break league game on Monday, 11 December. That came four days after an impressive 3-1 victory away to Real Sociedad on 7 December which ensured they topped their Europa League section. There must be an opportunity then for Celtic to catch them cold-ish, even if they have contested six friendlies in the past three weeks in a bid to avoid that.
“There is that way to look at it,” said Rodgers, who adopted a cautious tone about the tie this week. “I always felt in the qualification games here that if you can keep a clean sheet in your first game at home then it sets you up really well for the away game. I think we saw that in the Rosenborg game [in the Champions League qualifiers last summer]. We didn’t score, but we didn’t concede.
“We felt in the second game when we were playing away, as the game wore on and we had good control of the game, then the home crowd know that if they concede they have got to score two. So I think at times everyone likes to have the second leg at home. You know what you are playing for then. Listen, it’s not the worst to have the first leg at home. You can try to get some sort of advantage. If you can keep a clean sheet then it gives you a real motivation.”
A clean sheet is the tallest of orders for a Celtic side that have only posted one in Europe outwith qualifiers in the Rodgers’ era. It is made all the more difficult when your opponents can boast a £77m spend on players in the past year. “I have looked at them and seen them and they play slightly differently from [Mancini’s] Manchester City. At Manchester City they were very much a defensive block with quality players. It was 4-2-3-1 or 3-5-2. This team is very clearly 4-3-3. They press the game. It is certainly a change from how his Man City team played to how this team plays.
“They have good pace on the sides. The boy from the right side, the left footed player [Argentinian Emiliano Rigoni, who has six goals in Europe this season] in particular is talented. He cuts in and has got good speed. There is a right back behind him.
“Branislav Ivanovic is there who I worked with at Chelsea. He has gone back out there and is a real lynchpin for the team. He has still got good legs and strength and power and experience. He is playing as a centre half. That was his actual position when they brought him in to Chelsea. He ended up playing a lot at right back and doing really well there. It is a really difficult game for us. They are a very good side.”
The last 32 of the Europa League is so stuffed with them that unseeded Celtic would have been long odds to prevail against any of the seeded teams they could have drawn.
“The likes of Napoli and Borussia Dortmund, these are teams that would have been hoping and expecting to go a long way in the Champions League so the calibre of clubs and players is a really high level,” Rodgers said.
“Everyone wants to be in the Champions League but the Europa League isn’t a competition you can turn your nose up at, it’s a really prestigious competition. I’ve seen some comments about possibly winning it and stuff. I’m a realist and we want to be competitive in the Europa League, that’s what is important, but there’s still a big gulf, that’s the reality.
“We have to somehow try and find a way to get through in these games over the two legs but we understand it will be very difficult.”
That fact is booming out loud and clear.