The Road to Gdansk
by Matt Evans
Suffice it to say Celtic have not had an easy go of the draw recently in European knockout rounds. In both the Champions League round of 16 and the Europa League round of 32, Celtic have not advanced out of a knockout tie since the 2003/04 Champions League. A third-place finish in a tough group the year after the Seville run led to a comparatively easy UEFA Cup draw against Czech side Teplice. Celtic would advance thanks to a Larsson brace in Glasgow – King Henrik’s early goal was quickly followed by a Sutton strike, and the Swede added his second late in the match. A 1-0 loss in the away leg on a rainy night was enough to advance.
As many of us remember, that victory spurred Martin O’Neill’s side on to the unforgettable knockout of a star-studded Barcelona side with a 1-0 victory in Glasgow and the most famous nil-nil in Celtic history two weeks later at the Nou Camp. Thoughts were turning to a possible second UEFA Cup final in a row, but it was not to be, as Celtic went out to another Spanish side – the far less-talented Villareal – in the quarterfinals.
Since then, Celtic have been drawn against the likes of Juventus, Milan (both AC and Inter), Barcelona, Zenit St Petersburg, and Valencia. For those scoring at home, that’s three Serie A sides and two La Liga sides, with Ivan Drago the roided-up Russian champ thrown in as well. Celtic didn’t go into any of those ties as favourites, and despite losing them all have managed some good results at home. The away leg has been a real bugaboo, however, and was where the knockout tie with Zenit was lost after a gallus 1-0 win at Celtic Park.
Make no mistake – in this campaign, having already hit a new milestone by topping the group and therefore ensuring Celtic are drawn against a theoretically easier class of opponent – the goal is to finally advance out of the knockout round. Improvement for the Hoops in Europe, though, is frustratingly slow to develop and is often accompanied by disappointment. Two steps forward, one step back. But this season may well be special, and the way the team ultimately bounced back from failure (and has shown a similar resilience domestically) should give the Celtic faithful considerable confidence.
Who can we get?
The draw: Monday, 12 noon
A quick refresher on the Europa League round of 32 draw, to be held Monday 16 December in Nyon, Switzerland (a city that seems to exist solely to host UEFA draws). Celtic, having topped a European group for the first time in 16 tries, will make up one of the seeded sides, to be drawn against 14 of the 16 unseeded sides for a two-legged home-and-away.
Eight teams have dropped down from third-place group positions in the Champions League, and fortunately Celtic have avoided the four most difficult, who join them in the seeded group: Ajax, Salzburg, Inter, and Benfica. The four ex-CL sides whom Celtic could be drawn against include (in general descending order of difficulty):
- Bayer Leverkusen (Germany) – Sitting sixth in the Bundesliga, Leverkusen have victories over Bayern Munich, Schalke and Atletico Madrid to their credit this season.
- Olympiacos (Greece) – Currently top of the Greek Super League with a very stingy defence and a tough stadium for visiting clubs.
- Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine) – One of the perennial Ukrainian champions and running away with the league this season.
- Club Brugge (Belgium) – Barely scraping through their group, this would be a very intriguing opponent for the Hoops as well as a fantastic away day.
After the Europa League group stages wound up on an otherwise uneventful Thursday night in European history, we now know for sure the other opponents that could come out of the bowl on Monday afternoon. Two of the unseeded opponents, however, will not be available. One is thankfully CFR Cluj; we’ve seen more than enough of them, and group stage opponents can’t face each other in the knockout rounds. The other, ha-ha, is Rangers; Young Boys’ late equaliser at Ibrox allowed Porto to top their group. Teams from the same associations cannot be paired together in the round of 32…but they can be in later rounds, and wouldn’t a tie with them in Europe be absolutely fucking insane?).
The remaining ten group stage runners-up in the Europa League:
- APOEL (Cyprus) – APOEL are constantly in and around the third/fourth-round qualifiers available for Celtic to draw, but we always get someone else. But it gives you an idea of their level.
- AZ Alkmaar (Netherlands) – Another possible first-time opponent, AZ wouldn’t be the best draw but not the worst either. They are second in the Eredivisie and in that goal-happy league have only allowed eight in 16.
- Copenhagen (Denmark) – A slightly higher class of opponent than APOEL and perennially in and around the late-stage qualifiers. Came second in a decent group with a solid defence (4 goals in 6) but didn’t score much either.
- Eintracht Frankfurt (Germany) – Frankfurt are celebrating their 40th anniversary of the UEFA Cup and would be a difficult opponent with a veteran squad, although they have not off to a great start in the Bundesliga. Although Celtic have faced a record nine German teams in their illustrious European history, Eintracht Frankfurt is not one of them.
- Getafe (Spain) – Another very good defensive club (8 in 16 in La Liga [!] and 4 in 6 in the EL) who have done well to win quite a few 1-0s this season.
- Ludogorets (Bulgaria) – File under the same calibre of opposition as Copenhagen and APOEL. They would be the first Bulgarian side Celtic have ever faced in Europe, and finished a close second in a poor EL group, allowing a lot of goals. Would be a good draw despite a long way to go for the away leg.
- Roma (Italy) – One of two or three landmines in the draw, the good half of Rome had a tricky time with a very hard EL group. They are currently fifth in Serie A, and if Celtic can handle Lazio there’s no reason we can’t deal with Roma, although easier opposition would be nice.
- Sporting CP (Portugal) – Had a good run in the EL groups and are lined up for another EL spot next season, sitting fourth in the Primeira Liga. Definitely one for the away kits as they also play in green and white hoops. Sporting also had their first-choice keeper sent off on Matchday 6, so he will miss their first round of 32 match.
- Wolfsburg (Germany) – Another German team that Celtic have never faced, it’s been a few years since Wolfsburg played in Europe. This year they got themselves a fairly favorable group draw, and overcame a slow start to finish one point behind the winners. Mid-table in the Bundesliga, they have had trouble scoring goals this season.
- Wolverhampton (England) – The last knockout tie against an English side was Liverpool on the way to Seville (and they too have a V in their name) so even though Wolves wouldn’t be the easiest draw they might be a lucky one. They have been excellent both in domestic and European competition this year.
Our path so far
Overall the 2019/20 European campaign for Celtic has been pretty familiar for Hoops faithful: the highest of highs but the lowest of lows. The first goal in Europe is to navigate the tricky qualifiers and make the group stages of the Champions League, and this year, yet again, Celtic would have to win four ties (instead of three as we had become accustomed to before 2017/18). This was due in large part to Scotland’s other clubs continuing to be absolutely pants in European competition, leaving Celtic to prop up the coefficient on our own.
The first qualifier was against Bosnian side FK Sarajevo, who were handled easily enough (5-2 agg.) although Celtic did go down 1-0 in the away leg before three goals without reply (MJ, Eddy, Sinclair) put the tie out of reach. Christie and McGregor goals in the home leg were more than enough to cancel out a consolation goal for the visitors. For the next round, in the way these things sometimes happen in Europe, the opponent was actually easier – a club called Nomme Kalju from Estonia, who were very green but put out an experienced Shkendija side the previous round.
Kalju were dispatched in high style, as Celtic killed the tie with a 5-0 thumping at Parkhead. It took 36 minutes, but Ajer opened the scoring, followed before the end of the half by a Christie penalty and an injury-time strike from Griffiths. Christie and McGregor both scored in the second half to round out the beating. The away leg was a cruise as Celtic won 2-0 thanks to an early Kalju own goal and a late goal from Shved.
The next opponent out of the hat for Celtic were Romanian champions Cluj. My recollection is that most people were fairly optimistic right after the draw; Celtic could have been drawn with Red Star Belgrade or Dinamo Zagreb, both of which ended up in the Champions League. And when Celtic flew out to Romania on 7 August and fought their hosts to a 1-1 draw (Forrest scoring the equaliser on 35 minutes, ten minutes after a Cluj opener), the support had every reason to look forward to the next round.
Older, warier Celtic fans might have had a bit more pause. Strange things happen to Celtic in Europe. We beat teams that, on paper, are far better (Barcelona comes to mind, multiple times), but that also means that we get done ourselves by inferior sides from time to time. And as it often does, at Celtic Park on 13 August, it happened in calamitous fashion. Celtic had let their opponent score an away goal in the first half before Forrest levelled the tie on 51 minutes and then Edouard put Celtic ahead ten minutes later.
Scott Brown then made the only mistake he’s made so far this season, conceding a penalty which was converted – putting Cluj ahead in the tie on away goals. Somehow, just two minutes later, Christie put Celtic ahead from close range, but it was not a portent of what was to come. Celtic completely lost their heads and ability to defend, and Cluj scored on 80 minutes and then again deep into injury time to win 4-3 and sink the dagger into our Champions League hopes.
Ironically, Cluj would not only go out in the play-off round to Slavia Prague, but they were also later drawn in Celtic’s Europa League group.
After the loss to Cluj, Celtic parachuted into the play-off round of the Europa League and were drawn against AIK of Sweden – a fairly difficult draw given that summertime is midseason for Swedish sides. Coming off getting dumped out of the CL, the mood was anxious at best going into the AIK tie. However, Celtic showed some of the steel that they would later display multiple times in both Scotland and Europe. The Hoops won the first leg in Glasgow 2-0 from second-half Forrest and Edouard goals. Two first-half away goals (Forrest again, Johnston) in Sweden secured qualification to the Europa League, with Jullien and Morgan adding goals of their own late in the match.
The entertainments of the Europa League group stage are so recent that I won’t go on too much about them. Suffice it to say they were a rousing success for Celtic, and the group was won, done and dusted after Matchday 5. A disciplined 1-1 draw away to Rennes set the stage for a bit of payback for Cluj, as they were dispatched 2-0 at Celtic Park, partially making up for the painful loss two months prior.
Then came the home-and-away with Lazio, the Pot 1 member of the group and the consensus most difficult opponent. And all Celtic did was go toe-to-toe with them over two streetfights in Glasgow and Rome, and emerge triumphant. Lazio were difficult opponents on and off the park but in the end the fash were smashed, courtesy of an injury-time goal from Jullien at Celtic Park and one from Ntcham at the Stadio Olimpico. To say these were wild finishes don’t do them justice – but the memories are fresh enough you can still close your eyes and see them.
Rennes came to Celtic Park and we went right through them, having all the motivation in the world as a win and a Cluj loss would see Celtic lock down the group. And that’s precisely what unfolded, as Morgan and Christie’s first-half goals gave the Hoops the all-important two-goal lead, with Johnston adding a third midway through the second half. The 3-1 victory, with Cluj losing to Lazio, allowed us a stress-less Matchday 6 and the ability to both rest some players and blood others into Europe.
The final matchday in Cluj, somewhat overshadowed by the elections, was a 2-0 loss played at a friendly’s pace. Six or seven first-team players didn’t even travel, European debuts were given to a couple of the youths, and injuries and red cards were avoided. Even better yet, the Cluj win sent Lazio to a humiliating exit from Europe.
The key attacking players for Celtic in Europe so far have been the same guys that are our key attackers in Scotland. Ryan Christie, with four goals in the qualifiers and three in the group stages, has been Celtic’s top scorer in Europe this season, followed by Forrest (four in qualifying, one in the group) and Edouard (three in qualifying, one in the group). The biggest moments, however, came from Celtic’s enterprise as a team, leading to Jullien’s late winner at home and tenacious team defense as well as Ntcham’s even later winner off a Lazio turnover on the road in Rome.
Fraser Forster, who came in on loan almost as an afterthought, has been a massive presence (literally and figuratively) between the sticks for Celtic in Europe (and also in the league, or at least the League Cup, am I right?). Lazio had 12 attempts on target over the two matches but only converted two of them, and that was largely thanks to a series of world-class stops from the big man. His best, diving high to his right very late on to deny a sure goal and keep the score 2-1 at Celtic Park, will appear on YouTube highlight compilations for years to come. Forster also made a number of timely saves in the away leg, bringing back talk of La Gran Muralla and giving the defenders in front of him the confidence they needed to see off a determined Lazio attack.
Depending on the opponent, it will be interesting to see if Jeremie Frimpong, a revelation for Celtic domestically who has terrorized Scottish left backs, plays any part in either of the next round’s matches. Hatem abd Elhamed is on his way back and as the better defending right back probably has the upper hand for European matches, but Frimpong is a very intriguing option on the right coming off the bench.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Celtic have been very slowly building up their resume in Europe over the last decade. After a painful loss to Utrecht in the 2010/11 Europa League playoff, Celtic have made either the CL or EL group stage in each of the nine seasons since, advancing five times. The last four years: a fourth-place Champions League finish, a third-place CL finish, then a second-place Europa League finish, and now this year we topped our Europa League group. That’s definite progress, if incremental, and Celtic ought to be commended for that.
It’s been nearly seventeen years since Seville, and in my opinion Celtic haven’t had a better opportunity to get a sniff of anything near that success until this year. This has been, on the balance, one of the better European campaigns in my memory, the team has a lot of belief in itself and the manager, and will have the winter break to rest up and prepare for the February matches. A favorable draw will give Celtic their best chance in years to reach the later rounds of a European competition – and then after that, who knows? Buy the ticket, take the ride.