So, the Champions League and Zadok The Priest beckon once more. Six teams are through to the draw for the Round of 16, whilst seven sides can no longer make it. Group B is kind of settled. With Bayern and Paris Saint-Germain being two of the clubs already through, and joined by Manchester City, Spurs, Beşiktaş and Real Madrid, who finishes top of the group and who comes third to determine a Europa League place, remains to be sorted. Nineteen teams can still make it into the knockout stages of the premier European competition but Celtic don’t need to concern themselves with that. The club, Anderlecht, Apoel and Borussia Dortmund can all still finish third though and guarantee continental football after Christmas. No such luck for Feyenoord, Maribor and Monaco who’ll all finish bottom of their groups.
A point tonight will do just that but it’ll be easier said than done. Given the result at home, thoughts will turn to the last game against Anderlecht. With no goals scored and no points gained, you’d have to think that the Belgian side will struggle against Bayern, leading to a showdown in under a fortnight in Glasgow. Barring a disaster, we can all start planning that away trip in February. Whilst no one connected with the club will take results of the two games to follow for granted, it’s a natural thing as a fan to start thinking of what might happen in the Europa League. It’s only nineteen days until the Round of 32 draw, who lies in wait?
Arsenal, Dynamo Kyiv, Lazio, Steaua București, to give them their passport name, and Zenit are all already through to the knockout stages. AC Milan, AEK Athens, Astana, Atalanta, Braga, Crvena Zvezda, København, Ludogorets, Lyon, Marseille, Nice, Östersund, Partizan, Real Sociedad, Salzburg, Sheriff, Viktoria Plzeň, Villarreal and Zorya Luhansk can all also progress tomorrow night. Big spending Everton, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, and Macedonian side, Vardar are all already out. Looks like we’ll need to wait a bit longer to see McCarthy at Celtic Park!
The draw isn’t massively complex. Two pots of clubs, one with the twelve group winners and the four best third ranked teams from the Champions League group stages will be seeded and so will be drawn against the twelve group runners-up and the remaining third placed sides that drop down from the Champions League. The advantage for the seeded teams is that they’ll be at home in the second leg. As always, no team can play a club from their Europa League group or a side from the same country. The first leg is scheduled for the day after Valentine’s Day, could be a tricky trip to negotiate if Celtic are away first!
In Group A, Basel and CSKA Moscow already have six points apiece and so would likely end up with more points than Celtic, especially given that they each have two more matches to play. In Group C, Atlético Madrid are sitting on three points with a home tie against Roma and a trip to Chelsea to complete their schedule. Will they pick up more points than Celtic in the next two games? With both of their opponents fighting it out for top spot, you’d have to hope not. In Group D, Sporting Lisbon have four points and have Olympiacos at home before a trip to Barcelona. They’re probably getting more points than Celtic, right? In Group E, old foes Spartak Moscow’s last group game is a trip to Anfield. They’re on six points with a better goal difference than us so a heavy defeat for them and a decent win against Anderlecht could be pivotal. In Group F, the third place side should comfortably be seeded. Feyenoord welcome Napoli whilst Shakhtar Donetsk host Manchester City. Napoli already have six points whilst the Ukrainian side have nine. Porto and Leipzig are fighting it out for second spot in Group G and are equal on seven points so there’s another side who’ll likely be ahead of us in the pecking order. In Group H, Dortmund on two points have to go to Madrid. Apoel, 13th in the Greek Superleague and also on two points, finish their Champions league campaign with a trip to Wembley to face group winners Spurs.
The long and short of it all, is that Celtic will be unlikely to be seeded, barring some wild results in the remaining European games.
So, a Europa League group winner or one of the above mentioned sides from the Champions League. Probably.
Astana sit a point behind Villareal in Group A with a couple of games still to play. Could we really play Astana again? Villareal are old friends and play Astana tomorrow away from the Estadio de la Cerámica, formerly El Madrigal. Thursday will go a long way to shaping that group and potentially impacting on whether or not we all bring back gifts for our significant others from Spain or Kazakhstan.
Kyiv look nailed on to win Group B, ahead of Partizan, especially given that they make a trip to Albanian whipping boys Skënderbeu. You’d take them, wouldn’t you?
Bulgarian league winners Ludogorets Razgrad are fighting it out for top spot in Group C with Braga, the fifth best team in Portugal last season. Are either team a side that we couldn’t compete with if we’re at the top of our game?
AC Milan will likely win Group D. Given that they’ve spunked nearly £200m on new players for this season, you’d be hoping so if you were a fan of the Rossoneri. Probably best avoided? That said, they did fail to beat AEK or even score against them in the two group games.
Atalanta and Lyon are both on eight points in Group E. The final will take place in Lyon on Wednesday 16th May so you’d imagine that the French side will be super keen to progress. Having played a youthful Celtic side in pre-season, they’re maybe one to avoid also? Both sides meet in the last match of the group so it could be a while before the winners are decided.
No one seems to want to win Group F with FC København and FC Sheriff on six points with Lokomotiv Moscow a point further back. Each side has only won one of their first four games. You’d take any of the three though?
The aforementioned Steaua București whose unbeaten domestic record run stands at 119 games, made up of 104 league and 15 cup matches will likely emerge as Group G winners. They’re not the side they were when they didn’t suffer a single defeat in domestic football between 1985 and 1989 so would a trip to Romania appeal?
Arsenal will win Group H and can boast a vast array of talent. You wouldn’t mind facing them but later on in the tournament preferably if we were allowed to choose?
Salzburg or Marseille will win Group I. The Austrians have just appointed a new manager and don’t quite have the level of squad that they had the last time that Celtic faced them in Europe. Marseille are clearly a big name and have Dimitri Payet as captain. They sit fourth in Ligue 1, ten points behind tonight’s opponents after thirteen games. Decent player but no Tom Rogic surely?
Group J is a dumpster fire and anyone of Östersunds, Zorya Luhansk, Athletic Club or Hertha Berlin could all still win the group. Perm any one of those from four.
Lazio have a 100% record in Group K and sit fifth in Serie A. The away trip would be an adventure if half of the stories told about their fans are true. It’d be an experience but perhaps best avoided for safety reasons.
Zenit or Real Sociedad complete the list of potential opponents with Rosenborg a distant third. The Group L sides meet in Spain in the last game of the section so it’s all up for grabs.
So, there it is. It’s all becoming a little bit clearer. Whilst tonight isn’t a free hit, if you read Krys’ post earlier, you’ll know that we have nothing to lose tonight and that surprises do happen. Assuming all goes well in Paris and/or Belgium tonight, then post Christmas European football should be a step closer to becoming reality.