Forever hunting for wider appreciation and the respect of European crowds, Brendan Rodgers and Celtic face the unenviable task of overcoming one large, bright-blue behemoth in the form of Zenit St Petersburg in Thursday’s Europa League round-of-32 tie.
After not only dominating but altogether turning a blind eye to their domestic campaigns, the Scottish champions have set their sights on Roberto Mancini’s side as the latest yardstick upon which to judge their project and potential progress under their famed manager.
However, Zenit are a side with aspirations of their own. And while Celtic may hope to make a spectacle of their Russian guests, the former UEFA Cup winners will be intent on making short work of their Glaswegian opponents.
If each club were judged on their transfer activity this clash would be a non-starter, however when we dig in to the form and talents of either teams, the potential for a proper contest becomes far more likely.
For starters, it’s very hard to judge the true quality of this Zenit side. Their fans and coach may boast of an unbeaten record in the Europa League group stages, yet such a feat is watered down when you consider the opponents.
Real Sociedad are no pushovers, but nor are they European heavyweights. Similarly, beating Rosenborg over two games doesn’t exactly suggest the Russian side are ready to conquer the very best teams from across the continent. And the less said about Vardar the better.
The manner in which Zenit have reached this point in the competition also hardly fills opposing teams with fear. Mancini’s side have stumbled on their travels this season, with just four wins from their 11 away games in the Russian Premier League accompanying a tepid 1-1 draw in Norway against Rosenborg and a 1-0 defeat at Utrecht in the qualifiers. At Celtic Park, Rodgers’ side ought to really fancy their chances of adding to that disappointing trend.
The Russians also struggle to defend. Although fans rarely care about defensive records while their team are simply outscoring the opposition, Mancini ought to have noticed his side’s porous displays in Europe so far this season.
Zenit may have scored 17 goals in six group games, but they also managed to concede five goals too, with just one clean sheet coming away to lowly Vardar. Indeed, according to WhoScored, the Russian side are tenth out of 48 teams in the competition when it comes to shots conceded on their own goal.
As the old saying goes, ‘offence sells tickets, defence wins championships’. Despite Zenit’s potent exploits against lesser sides, it could be the clumsy nature of their defensive line that limits then in such a high-stake match. Especially if key defender, Branislav Ivanović, is likely to miss the tie through injury.
It may be this specific chink in the light blue armour that Celtic are able to exploit on Thursday and even in the return leg in Russia. For although Rodgers tends to exaggerate his team’s ability to dominate matches through clever tactics and smart possession, it’s the attacking potential in his own team that tends to bridge the gap between them and roaming, European giants.
Much of the pre-match nerves among Celtic fans have congregated around the makeshift defensive line that Rodgers may be forced to turn to, yet the Scottish champions should still be able to call upon an attacking line that has caused trouble for even the best defences in Europe this season.
Despite only winning one game in their Champions League group stage, Celtic scored goals against both Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich and, according to Wyscout, created 14.6 shots per match – just short of PSG’s 14.92 and Bayern’s 16.29. The Scottish champions also made more passes in to the opposing final third than any other team in the competition during the group stage.
Indeed, it’ll be the likes of Scott Sinclair, James Forrest and Moussa Dembélé – particular after the injury to Leigh Griffiths – that will be gunning for goals on Thursday night. And although Zenit are favourites for the tie there’s no doubt that attacking players of such proven quality in Europe this season will fancy their chances against a porous, Russian defence.
As Rodgers’ side have already shown in Europe this season with wins over Anderlecht, Rosenborg and Astana – as well as a hard-fought clash against Bayern at Celtic Park – the Glasgow side can raise their game and score goals against genuine, European pedigree. Whether they can turn that on against Zenit on Thursday, and take advantage of the holes in Mancini’s side, is yet to be seen.