Thank You Zenit

I will forever be grateful to Zenit St Petersburg.

Some will call me bitter, but I cannot thank them enough for being the team that stopped Rangers in the UEFA Cup in 2008.

To this day it galls me that Walter Smith’s men matched the achievements of Martin O’Neill’s five years earlier. When we got to Seville, we did it playing exciting football and overcoming stuffy teams who tried to get to that final by barricading the goal.

Unfortunately sometimes teams like that actually get there. And so the term Wattinaccio was born. A style of play that would get football stopped.

That UEFA Cup run was the last time I ever watched the now long gone Rangers when they weren’t playing Celtic. I didn’t even watch the final, I just found out the result later.

Thankfully that result in the final in Manchester was a 2-0 win for Zenit, and the Russians lifted the trophy while the Rangers fans just got lifted. Ten years on, Zenit will once again be hoping to lift the same trophy in the tournament now known as the Europa League.

While Celtic have reached this stage through the parachute of a third place finish in the Champions League group stages, Zenit got here all the way from the third qualifying round of the Europa League. There they saw off Bnei Yehuda of Israel before dispatching Utrecht of the Netherlands in the playoff round.

The group stages saw them win five of their six games and drawing only one. It’s worth noting that the draw came away to Rosenborg, who we all know got there after we knocked them out of Champions League qualifying.

And, unlike Zenit, we won in Trondheim!

Zenit topped their group ahead of Real Sociedad, with Vardar of Macedonia finishing bottom of the group.

Domestically, Zenit are on their long winter break. After twenty League games they are second, eight points behind leaders Lokimotiv Moscow. They were, however, knocked out of the Russian Cup by Dynamo St Petersburg.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know there was another team in St Petersburg until I saw that!

The last domestic game was on December 11th, and Zenit aren’t due to play their next league game until March 4th. But just like us in the summer during qualification, Europe calls them back earlier than they would otherwise like.

Zenit’s squad is mostly Russian unsurprisingly, with a few Argentinians and former Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic.

Though he won’t be facing Celtic this week as he’s out injured. Not that we don’t have our own injury worries!

Tom Rogic was all set to return for Celtic on Saturday. Stripped and ready to come off the bench, he was just waiting for that next break in play which only come when Connor Sammon made it 3-2. With the tactics now changing to seeing out the game, a clearly disappointed Australian returned to his seat.

And now he’ll miss out as he couldn’t get a run out in the development league this week either. Seems a bit harsh to me, surely he could be on the bench again?

The question of our defence is another troubling one. Jozo Siminovic has an awful game on Saturday and really hasn’t seemed himself lately. With Kristoffer Ajer and Jack Hendry relatively inexperienced at this level, Dedryck Boyata still injured and Marvin Compper both injured and ineligible anyway, it’s hard to see us going into this match without Jozo.

Things don’t get any better further up the park.

Moussa Dembele still looks off his regular game from last season, while Scott Sinclair almost looks short of confidence. James Forrest, the man who won that game in Trondheim I mentioned earlier, can’t do everything himself. Certainly not at this level.

The signs aren’t good for this game, and so expectations are relatively low. We all wanted Europe after Christmas and we’re certainly getting it, but it all feels a bit of an anticlimax right now. The game isn’t even a sell out, which may have as much to do with the extortionate ticket prices at a difficult time of year then anything else.

The feeling therefore is more of hope than expectation. It’s been too long since we had a European win at Celtic Park beyond the qualifiers. That came in a 2-1 win over Astra in the group stages of this competition in October 2014. That’s far too long ago now.

Will that change tonight? Well we won’t have a better chance against Zenit with them a little ring rusty. But they’ve played friendlies to keep them ticking over, so I’m not sure how much of a difference that will really make. Certainly not as much as if we put in another stuttering performance!

I may be eternally grateful to Zenit for what happened ten years ago, but it ends at my gratitude. When the awful Europa League anthem rings around Celtic Park later, they’ll just be another team that I want to see Celtic beat.

Hopefully we can get the performance to do just that.

Krys (twitter @krys1888)

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