Celtic’s 1-0 victory over FK Sarajevo, alongside surprise defeats for FC Basel, FC Copenhagen, Sporting CP and VfL Wolfsburg in their Play-Off ties, ensured not only qualification to the Europa League group stage for a third consecutive year, but also a significant leap in the coefficient rankings, placing Celtic into Pot One for today’s draw – avoiding the likes of Arsenal, Bayer Leverkusen, Benfica, Napoli, Roma and Tottenham.
Whilst that, last night, felt like a double celebration – qualifying for European competition as well as escaping the tournament’s top ranked sides – UEFA’s draw this lunchtime had other things on its mind, with Sparta Prague, AC Milan and Lille completing Group H.
The threat of Milan is obvious, and though their decline throughout the last decade has been well documented, their incredible resurgence in form post-lockdown saw them pick up more points than any other Serie A side during that period. It’s hard to imagine we could have asked for a sterner test from a Pot 3 side, with Milan being mentioned as one of the early favourites for the competition outright.
On to Pot 4 and, in Lille, Celtic have drawn another of the highest ranked sides possible from their pool. Lille finished the 19/20 season just a point behind last year’s Europa League rival, Rennes, in Ligue 1, and though they have lost some key players this summer, they have spent big money in replacing them – Jonathan David costing a reported €30m. Again, this is pretty much as tough as it gets regarding a lower ranked side.
Perhaps the expected underdog of the group, Sparta Prague, may not enjoy the same reputation of their competitors, however, to follow the trend of this year’s draw, they, of course, also had one of the highest coefficient rankings from their grouping of Pot 2.
Whatever annoyances may have been caused by the Champions League qualification exit to Ferencvaros, a lack of competition or glamour in this season’s European ties cannot now be one of them.
The reality of the Champions League in recent years is that it represents a playground for the increasingly super-rich that, though we can still hope, and often – draw-dependent – expect, to qualify for, is growing ever further away from being a competition we can excel in once into the group stages.
In Group H of the Europa League, Celtic are posed with not only a real challenge to qualify for the next round, but also an exciting array of fixtures to test ourselves in and prove our quality.
After last night’s victory over Sarajevo, Neil Lennon commented on the hangover and frustration following the Ferencvaros tie, the response from the players, and significantly, how qualification for the Europa League now “opens up the season”, giving Celtic a lot to look forward.
Lennon also discussed his confidence at keeping hold of his key assets before the transfer window closes on Monday night, and though Group H may prove far more challenging than many of us had initially hoped for, if a desire to face top-class opposition had been the cause of the murmurings of unrest amongst some of the players, the prospect of facing Sparta Prague, Lille, and European giants, AC Milan, should instill a level of excitement throughout the squad.
On a purely results basis, Celtic’s reaction to our Champions League exit has been exceptional, on a performance basis though, it has often seemed ponderous from a fan’s perspective. Now, with the group stage drawn and the transfer window near closing, Neil Lennon and his players know exactly what challenges lie ahead, and when. They can now plan and prepare without any unexpected surprises – we hope. Though significantly challenging, the draw today should energize the entire club.
The news that Celtic had sneaked in with the top seeds may have initially given a false hope of an easier draw than in the previous two seasons, but, whilst that didn’t prove to be the case, the allure of the ties ahead could potentially reignite and reinvigorate our season.
Last night and in recent weeks, Neil Lennon has got the job done, now Celtic have the platform to push on and prove their value from Pot One.