On Thursday night Celtic welcome Zenit St. Petersburg to Paradise for a Europa League tie. It is the first time the two teams have met in European competition.
Both clubs come into this encounter with varying statistics. The disparity makes this match anything but predictable.
Celtic have of course parachuted into the this competition from the Champions League. Following a dismal campaign that yielded 1 win and 5 defeats they still managed to secure third spot in Group B.
By contrast, Zenit had an excellent Europa League campaign winning their group on 16 points. That was the highest points tally of any of the twelve groups involved in the competition.
They are also undefeated in the group phase winning 5 and drawing 1. And with 17 goals for and 5 goals against they are probably the best team to emerge from that round.
Or are they? Well Celtic will have their work cut out that’s for sure because Zenit are a vastly experienced European side with good financial backing.
There are other factors to consider of course. Such as the opposition each team faced in Europe this season and where they find themselves in the UEFA rankings.
Picking up on the latter point first, Celtic are currently ranked 48th whilst Zenit sit in 19th position. So there is no doubt the Russians are a team to be respected.
In terms of group phase campaigns though there is great contrast. This is when you need to give Celtic a bit of a break.
With reference to UEFA rankings, Celtic played Bayern Munich (2nd), PSG (6th) and Anderlecht (32nd). Zenit played Real Sociedad (79th), Rosenburg (138th) and FK Vardar (255th).
Who had the tougher campaign? I think you can work that one out for yourselves.
Then there is the question of current form. This might be harder to gauge as Zenit haven’t kicked a competitive ball in over two months.
Celtic have been back from their three-week winter break for a few weeks now and played 6 competitive matches. That resulted in 5 wins and 1 defeat since their return to duty.
Zenit played eight friendlies during their winter shut down. 6 wins, 1 draw and 1 defeat was the overall outcome.
They played some recognisable names including FC Copenhagen, Maribor, Slovan Bratislava, Slavia Prague and Red Star Belgrade but again all friendlies. Their last six competitive games returned 4 wins, 1 draw and 1 defeat across all competitions during November/December.
Some Hoops fans might be concerned about Celtic’s overall European form though. The European fortress that Celtic Park once was is no longer.
The fans are always in good voice but the performances and indeed the results on home soil have fallen short of what we were seeing during the Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan eras. You could argue that much of that comes down to the financial gulf between clubs like Celtic and the cream of Europe these days.
There is very little that Celtic can do about that though. That is in the hands of UEFA.
Celtic must work within their means to procure the best players they can and use the best coaches they can hire to make things work. Right now I would say that there is still plenty of room for improvement at the club before we say “this is the best we can do”.
PSG wiped the floor with Celtic this season. Realistically, it doesn’t come much better than them right now.
What Brendan Rodgers needs to do is continue toward closing that gap. I still believe that with this team and some future improvements that gap can be narrowed.
Despite results and performances, Celtic have still made progress from last season by reaching this stage in Europe. Even if Zenit St. Petersburg turns out to be Celtic’s last stop in Europe this season we can identify where things went wrong and where we must improve for season three.
Getting to the Champions League was a priority for Brendan Rodgers in his first season. Qualifying from it was on the agenda for season two.
From this point on it is about sustaining that. Only by doing this will Celtic make inroads in Europe and constant investment will be required to keep up the fight.
Dropping out will only set the club back. We’ve already lost enough ground over the last ten years as it is.
This season has been a real contrast from last in terms of performances. There is plenty of time to remedy that – even this season.
So both teams are coming into this match with mixed stats and form. Match odds aren’t too dissimilar for each team either – I think that tells you all you need to know.
The dugouts will recognise each other, at least from a managerial perspective. Brendan Rodgers almost became Roberto Mancini’s assistant at Manchester City before he was offered the Swansea City job.
Between Swansea and later in the Liverpool job, both managers have faced each other enough times to be familiar opponents. What once could have been a double act at Manchester City continues as a face-off.
Brendan and Roberto will also be familiar with each other’s current clubs. Albeit with contrasting memories.
Whilst at Liverpool, Brendan lost to Luciano Spalletti’s Zenit St. Petersburg on away goals at this very stage in the same competition in 2013. During the winter break of 2014, Mancini saw his Galatasary side lift the Antalya Winter Cup after beating Neil Lennon’s Celtic on penalties.
Another interesting stat is from last seasons Europa League. Zenit made it to the round of 32 last season as well only to be undone by the away goals rule.
Their conquerors? Anderlecht.
Whilst Celtic may be injury ravaged right now, there should be plenty of appetite for this match. Home territory hasn’t served us well on the big stage so much, with some of our best European matches under Brendan Rodgers being played away from home.
It is high time that was turned around. And there is no time like the present.
On my last visit to Celtic Park, we annihilated FC Astana 5-0. What a night that was.
To witness that atmosphere again on Thursday night as I make my way to Glasgow today would be fantastic. The players and the fans need to start performing for each other now.
Everyone seems out of sorts on the pitch and in the stands. This isn’t Celtic.
What I saw back in August was Celtic. I want to see it again tomorrow night.
Let us allow our players to get into their stride. We haven’t enjoyed much of what we’ve seen this season, but if we get on their backs too soon then it will aid nobody but the opposition.
I can’t argue that I’ve been there every other week to watch Celtic. I live 400 miles away and just isn’t possible.
This game is huge for us though. It could change our season and set up our next.
When I think of these nights, I think of some of the greatest in our recent history. Juventus, AC Milan, Porto, Barcelona, Manchester United to name but a few.
In almost a week since the passing of Liam Miller, I think back to one of those nights when against Lyon he starred in one of those spectacular home performances. Thursday could be another one of those nights if the players and the fans respond to each other.