How Europa League results can influence Old Firm revival
Background photo: Zhi Yong Lee, CC BY 2.0
Celtic head into their final Europa League group match against an in-form Red Bull Salzburg side. A win catapults the Scottish side into the round of 32 but no one in any competition has won against the Austrian champions this term. Brendan Rodgers' squad is just finding its rhythm after struggling early in their Scottish Premier League season. The manager attempted to smooth over the club's lack of support in the transfer market but results don't lie.
Rodgers' Bhoys can at least rely on their strong home support. Finishing the group stage at Celtic Park bolsters their chances against the energy drink enhanced toros. A draw keeps the Glaswegians above the other Red Bulls, Leipzig, even if the Germans procure a desperately-needed three points against Norwegian giants Rosenborg, for which they are favoured.
The Hoops form is coming around. They've reclaimed the top spot which has been theirs for the past seven seasons. With the Christmas fixtures coming in droves, Rodgers would prefer his side ride their momentum rather than dwell on a disappointing failure. They are unbeaten in ten with eight triumphs. Eleven and counting is far more appealing than back to the drawing board.
Count among those wins a clutch 2-1 victory over Leipzig, a 5-0 romp against erstwhile table-toppers, Hearts, and a hard-fought 1-0 win over last years challengers to their throne, Aberdeen. James Forrest and Ryan Christie's form has been key. Neither a striker, they've nevertheless combined for 17 goals.
The match against Salzburg is an early all-in bet for their 2018/19 campaign. Qualification rests on securing at least a point in that game. Any victory would boost confidence. Derailing Salzburg's hitherto unimpeded march across Europe would be epic. The Austrian are 14 points beyond their domestic competition with 24 wins in their 29 matches across all competitions. They've amassed 77 points from a possible 87. Even Celtic weren't so imperious at the zenith of their current dynastic reign.
Rodgers must ensure his players are prepared and can at least eke out the point that will see them across the line. Failure opens the door for Rangers and the other Scottish sides loitering on the Celtic Park mat. The Old Firm Derby against Rangers is on the 29th. Speaking of epic, it is the first in years in which the two legendary clubs are perceived to be on anything near equal footing. If Celtic fail to progress while their rivals succeed, the last ounce of intimidation will erode from their aura.
Rangers are nipping at Celtics heels, two points behind in the SPL table, albeit having played an extra match. Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard has reinvigorated the Ibrox outfit in his debut turn as manager. After spending his career chasing Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United in vain, one has to wonder if he feels the irony in wanting to knock Celtic "off their perch."
First things first, Gers can only advance from their group by travelling to Vienna and knocking off Rapid Wien in their final group game. Winning away is always a difficult prospect but Rapid represent a much easier proposition than their Bundesliga rivals.
There are several league games to come for both Celtic and Rangers before they meet near year's end. Nevertheless, their respective success or failure in Europe will greatly influence their attitudes heading into that encounter. For those long-starved for a meaningful Old Firm clash, nothing would serve better than the two Scottish clubs claiming six points from their Austrian opponents.