Stade Rennais come to Celtic Park this evening for the second time this year. It’s Matchday 5 of the Europa League and the Ligue 1 side have no chance of qualifying for the last 32 of the tournament, but Celtic are looking to secure top spot in Group E having already qualified two weeks ago.
This evenings visitors are playing Celtic for the third time since July. The two teams met in July in a pre-season friendly, sandwiched between two European qualifiers against FK Sarajevo.
The friendly in Glasgow ended 0-0 with neither club aware they’d end up being paired in Group E of the Europa League the following month. Indeed, the first group stage match was between the two clubs with that match also finishing in a draw.
M’Baye Niang scored for Stade Rennais before half time to go in 1-0 up at the interval after converting a Kristoffer Ajer gifted penalty. Ryan Christie also scored from the spot to make it 1-1 in the second half after James Forrest was floored by opponent club captain, Damien da Silva.
Celtic also had substitute Vakoun Bayo sent off for a second yellow despite having only been on the park for eight minutes right before the end of the game. A draw seemed like a good result away from home in the group opener given how cagey things had begun.
Prior to tonight’s encounter, Neil Lennon saw his resilient side beat Lazio home and away after falling behind in both games. Those results earned Celtic a place in the knockout phase with two games remaining.
If Celtic can beat the whipping boys of the group this evening, first place will be theirs with a game to spare. That is an enviable position to be in.
Finishing top would most likely put Celtic in a better position for potential opponents when the draw for the knockout phase is made on 16 December in Nyon. At the very least, they would avoid each of the other group winners.
The other Group E qualifying place is still up for grabs, but CFR Cluj are in a stronger position to secure that than Lazio. The Romanians are only one point behind Celtic and need at least one point from their remaining two games to go qualify from the group.
This evening Cluj will play Lazio in Rome and then host Celtic two weeks later. If they lose in Stadio Olimpico they will need at least a draw or better against Celtic in the final game in Romania in order to qualify.
Lazio of course require maximum points from from their last two games if they are to have any hope of qualifying. They are currently six points behind Cluj would need to beat Cluj tonight and Stade Rennais away in two weeks time.
If Cluj pick up any points at all or Lazio drop any, Cluj will be through and Lazio will be out. So going into these last two fixtures there is still a lot to play for.
I can’t remember a time when Celtic looked so strong in a group phase of a European tournament. When the draw was made I felt confident but I never imagined we be in this situation.
Tremendous credit must go to the players and coaching staff. In Europe alone we already look like a better side than in previous regimes.
The knockout phase of thistournament will be much different. If this team can take the same belief that has got them this far, then I ask the question how far can they go?