Celtic deserve immense credit for the manner in which they overcame the odds to beat Zenit St Petersburg 1-0 at Parkhead last Thursday, yet their upcoming clash in Russia means only half the job is done.
So can Brendan Rodgers’ side repeat a similarly tasking feat and progress to the next round of the Europa League?
The most notable aspect of the coming tie that will surely trouble most Celtic fans is the fact that their Scottish champions rarely travel well in Europe. The Glasgow side may have their famed stadium and vocal fans, yet when tasked with matching opponents across Europe history suggests Celtic often fall short of the mark.
However, things have changed lately – especially under Rodgers’ open, attacking style of football. Last season’s qualification campaign for the Champions League saw Celtic go to Astana and pick up a necessary 1-1 draw, while Rodgers’ side accomplished even more impressive results away to Manchester City and Borussia Mönchengladbach in the group stages.
This season has seen a similar trend. In the pre-season qualifiers, Celtic overcame Rosenborg with a 1-0 win at the Lerkendal stadium while a 3-0 triumph over Anderlecht in the group stages proved to be Rodgers’ solitary win in the competition since arriving in Glasgow and, crucially, enough to earn his side third place in the group.
Celtic, under Rodgers, have not only bucked the trend of looking hopeless on the road but in many situations proved to be quite decisive at getting results.
That’s not to say that they’ve suddenly become masters of the away trip. Despite an impressive qualifying campaign for the Champions League, which had seen Celtic rack up five consecutive clean sheets and pick up a five-goal cushion in the first leg in Glasgow, Rodgers’ side almost threw that all away by conceding four goals away to Astana in late August.
Similarly, despite an impressive performance at home against Bayern Munich, Rodgers’ team looked utterly at odds with their German opponents when Jupp Heynckes’ side put three goals past them in Munich during the group stages.
Although domestic form rarely comes into play when Celtic are preparing for a European match, it is worth noting that both of Celtic’s defeats in the league this season have come on the road too. In December, Hearts dazzled at Tynecastle with a 4-0 thumping of the Scottish champions, while Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock put on a defensive masterclass to shut out Rodgers’ side and earn a well-deserved 1-0 win just a few weeks ago.
We also have to consider the fact that Zenit also look far better at home. Roberto Mancini’s side have not only remained undefeated at home in the Europa League this season, but their form in the Russian Premier League relies heavily upon their ability to pick up result at the Saint Petersburg Arena.
Despite picking up two defeats in front of their own fans this season, Mancini’s side have an average points per game ratio of 2.11 points at home. An impressive figure that not only comes close to Celtic’s own domestic dominance of 2.29 points per home game but also dwarfs the 1.64 points they tend to pick up on average in away matches.
Celtic should expect to face a side that seem to be far more comfortable at home and will be confident of overturning the one-goal advantage the travelling side currently enjoy.
To combat what ought to be a very offensive display from Zenit, Rodgers will undoubtedly look to the 3-5-2 formation that Celtic played last week. Although the performance led to Celtic dominating the game, the formation is actually intended to limit opposing sides from dominating the centre of the pitch whilst limiting the available space on the wings.
A defensive, counter-attacking system would not only allow Celtic to absorb much of Zenit’s intent but allow Rodgers to focus his side’s attacks through the pace they possess on either wing and up front. In many ways, a 1-0 lead leaves Celtic in the perfect position to defend their lead whilst trying to pick off their Russian hosts with careful, accurate counter attacks.
Indeed, Rodgers also took the pragmatic decision to rest seven first-team players for their clash with St Johnstone on Sunday. And although it may have led to the Glasgow side dropping points, a rest for Kieran Tierney, Scott Brown, Moussa Dembélé, Jozo Šimunović, Mikael Lustig, Olivier Ntcham and James Forrest could prove vital in overcoming a Zenit side that may still be far from fully fit.
Ultimately, formations and past results only count for so much and, on the day, performances will either win or lose the game for Celtic. But if they can set up in a similar system to last week they should have enough to get past Zenit.