How far can the Scottish clubs go in Europe?
Background image: Daniel, CC BY 2.0
For the second season on the run, Scotland will be represented in the Europa League group stage by the Old Firm. The disastrous campaigns of yore, including a couple of infamous slipups in such footballing strongholds as Gibraltar and Luxembourg, are now fading into memory. While Pedro Caxhina and Brendan Rogers may lie awake at night, tormented by those past humiliations, it seems the Glasgow giants have moved on from those dark days.
Is this the year the Hoops and the Gers venture further into Europe, returning glory to Glasgow? Or will the group stages be the end of the line for Scotland’s finest?
Celtic find themselves in European group stages for the ninth consecutive season, but they’ve progressed to the round of 32 a mere three times in that period. A fourth shot at glory would be nice, but it’s not going to easy.
The Hoops have been given a tough group, drawing Lazio and Rennes along with Romanian outfit Cluj. After wiping out Sampdoria and earning a creditable draw with Roma, Lazio will see Celtic as an easy tie. Rennes, who lie second in Ligue 1, are plenty good enough to overcome The Bhoys.
Cluj knocked the Hoops out of the Champions’ League this season, but Neil Lennon surely took a lesson or two from the defeat. The old cliché about whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger could hold true here.
It’s not like Celtic never progressed from the group stages before, but the last time they achieved the feat their opposition was Red Bull Salzberg, Dinamo Zagreb and Romania’s Astra Giurgiu. They’ll need to take their game to the next level to pull it off again.
Still, Celtic’s win over Rangers last weekend gives them a good starting point. With the league firmly under wraps for the time being, they can take their foot off the gas a little when it comes to domestic action, keeping their key men in top condition for those crunch group stage games. Leigh Griffiths and Scott Brown may be incapable of feeding the five thousand, but they can certainly stun 50,000 at Parkhead with a bit of magic on the pitch.
Kieran Tierney’s move to Arsenal is a big blow to Celtic’s prospects, but the additions of Christopher Jullien and Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo beef out a defence that will need to weather many a storm in the coming weeks.
It’ll be a tough ask, but Celtic could progress with a strong team performance and a bucketful of luck. As for the round of 32, that’s another matter entirely. But if Celtic manage to best Lazio or Rennes, the knock-out rounds should hold no fears.
Aim: Bucking the odds to make the round of 32
Rangers are through to the Europa League group stages once again, and Gers fans will be breathing a sigh of relief. No funny business with obscure semi-pro outfits and humiliating media reports for another year at least.
It’s not all fun and games though. Rangers find themselves in an even tougher group than their crosstown rivals. BSC Young Boys, Feyenoord and Porto are the trio of seasoned gladiators that leave Rangers as the unarmed slave begging for mercy on the Colosseum floor.
BSC Young Boys may not stand out as a particularly illustrious name but make no mistake they’re a solid outfit. Unbeaten in a competitive Swiss Super League and veterans of last season’s Champions League group stages, they’ll be feeling confident when the Gers roll into town.
Jaap Stam’s Feyenoord may be the most beatable team for Rangers, as they’ve suffered a poor start to the campaign with a single win from four league games. Still, they’re no mugs. Just last season they were brushing Napoli aside like it ain’t nothing, and they’ve got enough quality in their squad to blast Stevie G out of the water.
As for Porto, well, the less said the better. It’s difficult to imagine Rangers taking anything from the Portuguese giants; a side ranked above Chelsea and Ajax in the coefficient rankings.
Have Rangers strengthened enough to be competitive? Realistically, it doesn’t matter. Gerrard’s got European experience to call upon, not least in the shape of Jermain Defoe. Then there’s the usual raft of bright young talent brought in over the summer. Still, Hamilton Accies are more likely to win the SPL than Rangers are to qualify from this group. Though they’d be loath to admit it, Gerrard and co will be content with a third-place finish, and the opportunity to build on prize money and experience.
Aim: Getting out of this group alive would be amazing. Third place is more than creditable.