The draw for the Europa League last 16 was made today and there was a real mix of names on show. On the one hand, there are sides like Ajax, Manchester United, AC Milan, Spurs. Those are Champions League level teams. Then there are mid-level sides such as Slavia Prague, Olympiacos, Roma, Arsenal and Shaktar Donetsk. Beyond those names are a list of teams who are very much beatable – Young Boys, Dinamo Zagreb, Granada, Molde, Dynamo Kiev, Villarreal, Rangers.
That latter list of sides indicate that Celtic can reach the deeper stages of the competition, with a bit of luck and ambition. The Bhoys have failed to do so since 2004, though we have reached the last 16 of the Champions League on three occasions. Europa League draws haven’t always been the kindest to us either. We have been paired with Inter Milan, Zenit St Petersburg and Valencia in recent years. We weren’t favourites for any of those and haven’t managed to upset the odds, even with victory over Zenit in the home leg. However, we were presented with a golden chance last season, when, after topping the group, we faced a Copenhagen side that was stricken with injury. This was our chance to go deeper into the competition, but we failed.
I raised the topic on Twitter and Lisbon Lion, John Fallon offered his thoughts.
Liam this why we have to change our mindset, all other clubs have saw the need for European systems and tactics,
— Sligotim (@JohnFallon8) February 26, 2021
In the period from 2004 to present we have been excellent on the domestic front, but Europe must now be the benchmark. If we were to build a team capable of qualifying for the Champions League, and finishing third in the group, then we could find ourselves seeded for the last 32 of the Europa League. With progression, the draw could be kind by offering one of the weaker teams, and we would then find ourselves in the latter stages. That trend may even continue, as is the case this year with Granada facing Molde, meaning one of those sides will at least get as far as the last eight.
Aside from the luck of the draw, it is also possible for Celtic to punch above our weight in a one off tie. We have the unique power of Celtic Park and if we improve away form, then anything is possible. Indeed, this season Villarreal eliminated Salzburg, Granada knocked out Napoli and Young Boys cruised past Bayer Leverkusen.
The Champions League late stages are beyond us with the financial gap, but for me the Europa League quarter finals are achievable. Once you get to that stage then anything can happen. The first thing we must do is get our business done early ahead of the qualifiers and then be ambitious in our approach.