FOR many years, supporters of Celtic and Rangers have reminisced over the great European nights in their respective clubs history. From Celtic’s European Cup success in 1967, through Rangers European Cup Winners Cup triumph in 1972, to the two contesting the UEFA Cup Final in the noughties, there have been a lot for the Old Firm to be proud of in Continental Competition football.
On Thursday, both go into their respective Europa League group stage matches knowing that victory is essential to keep their hopes of progression to the last 32 alive.
Celtic travel to Rosenborg for the third time inside 16 months in two competitions, having played the Norwegians in two Champions League Qualifying rounds, seeking three points that could prove pivotal in their bid to oust RB Leipzig into second position in their group. A couple of hours later, Rangers host Villarreal knowing that victory could lift the, from third to top of their section, depending on how Spartak Moscow get on against Rapid Vienna.
Whilst both sides are in a similar position in their sections, their journey into the group stages of Europe’s secondary competition have been contrasting.
As Scottish Champions, Celtic’s primary aim was to get into the Champions League for the third season running. Having negotiated two Qualifying rounds, they came up short in the Third Round of Qualifiers to AEK Athens. A combination of not strengthening their squad and key defender Derdryck Boyata posted missing, despite Brendan Rodgers declaring he was fit, were blamed for Celtic’s failure to reach the group stages in Europe’s Elite competition and falling into the same stage in the Europa League, via a playoff victory over Suduva.
Having got their, they were dealt a difficult draw where three of the four teams won their domestic leagues last season, whereas the Champions League only has one group with a similar statistic. Having negotiated a nervy 1-0 home win over Rosenborg on match day one, they came unstuck away to the two Red Bull sponsored sides in Salzburg, Semi Finalists in last seasons tournament, and Leipzig before their vital victory over the Germans brought them right back into contention.
With Salzburg and Leipzig meeting in Austria this week, the conspiracy theorists are already plotting a Leipzig victory that would see them remain in the driving seat for the second position regardless of Celtic’s result, given they edge they have in the head to head records. Potentially, Salzburg could risk their own qualification hopes by not clinching the point they need to secure a last 32 berth now, as a comprehensive defeat at Parkhead in the final game could threaten their tournament ambitions.
Celtic’s form domestically, and in that home victory over the Germans, has improved dramatically over the past month and they have been lethal going forward and defensively solid. Although they have a League Cup Final to prepare for, Rodger will not allow his side to take their eye off the ball as they look for a good Europa League run to compensate for missing out on Champions League revenue.
Rangers, on the other hand, have met their European objective just by reaching this stage after negotiating four Qualifying rounds. After going four years without continental football at Ibrox, then suffering their most humiliating European loss at the hands of Luxembourg’s fourth best team Progres Niederkorn, this was a good start to Steven Gerrard’s reign as Rangers Manager.
Of course, having got into the Group stages, they didn’t want to make up the numbers and had performed very well in their away draw against Villarreal, coming from behind twice to draw 2-2, before seeing off Rapid Vienna in one of their best European nights at Ibrox in over a decade. However, they have been set back by the 0-0 home draw with Spartak Moscow and surrendering a half time lead to go down 4-3 in Russia, that saw them drop from first to third in their section. Undoubtedly, they were let down by a poor refereeeing call to disallow a Morelos goal to make it 4-2. But the level of defending, which had been impressive in the Qualifying rounds, was horrendous and, unsurprisingly, they were punished, something that irritated Gerrard post match.
A second consecutive defeat, coupled with Spartak picking up three points at home to Rapid, will mean that their trip to Austria will be meaningless in a fortnights time. Although their opponents languish in 16th position in La Liga, Rangers will be foolish to write the Spaniards off and will need to be at the top of their game at both ends of the pitch if they are to enhance their European adventure.
Fans of both clubs will be hoping that their sides get into the last 32, and most will hope that their rivals campaign comes to a shuddering halt before Christmas. From a club rivalry point of view, it is a totally understandable stance to take. From a Scottish Football point of view, it would be a massive boost to our game if both sides managed to advance into the knockout stages of the Europa League from two difficult groups.
The coefficient will be enhanced by picking up good results against sides from nations in much better positions than us in the UEFA Rankings. Also, it will go a long way to Scottish clubs being in a position that they are not starting their season smack bang in the middle of a major international tournament.
It’s only been eleven years since the Old Firm were both featuring in the same Champions League competition back in 2007/08. Whilst it will be a long time before that scenario happens again, having both Celtic and Rangers involved in the Europa League is creating positive interest from our media towards our game and further progression from at least one of them will be good for our game as a whole – even if rival fans don’t agree with that sentiment!