“With all due respect to the competition, I’m not sure what it is,” Brendan Rodgers remarked in December – commenting on Leicester City’s impending involvement in the premier Europa Conference League.
UEFA’s new third-tier tournament has been derided in some quarters. It lacks the glamor and gravity of the Champions League and the depth and quality of the Europa League, but the competition achieves its main purpose.
The tournament’s raison d’être is to provide clubs outside the big leagues with more opportunities to experience European competition – and teams from Austria, Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Norway, Scotland and Serbia will all play each other tonight.
Over time, the Conference League could become an original alternative to its more well-known and established counterparts. There’s a lack of variety in the Champions League, the group stages are often monotonous and UEFA’s new tournament could thrive thanks to the unpredictability factor.
Celtic will be hoping their Conference League debut goes as planned. The Premiership league leaders welcome Bodø/Glimt to Glasgow, and Parkhead will be very active ahead of the knockout stage.
Bodø/Glimt grabbed world headlines by beating Roma 6-1 in October, but their side are weaker than a few months ago. The Norwegians have sold four of their standout performers and are currently in pre-season mode, with their league campaign not expected to start until the first weekend of April.
Ange Postecoglou was, to his credit, optimistic in his response to questions regarding his team’s appetite for the Conference League. He’s aiming for a deep run – and the tournament offers the Glasgow giants a chance to banish the angst of previous excursions abroad.
The Celtic patron Ange Postecoglou
Martin O’Neill was the starter when Celtic last won a knockout tie after Christmas 18 years ago. His resilient team overcame Barcelona, but after David Marshall’s heroism in Spain, the Hoops met with February misfortune on seven occasions.
Celtic are unlikely to have a better chance of progressing in the trade part of a European tournament. They are rampant at home, brimming with confidence and are about to meet undercooked opposition.
Basel, Feyenoord, Leicester City, Marseille and PSV Eindhoven are among the remaining teams in the competition. Jose Mourinho’s men are the favorites to lift the trophy in Tirana, but Celtic won’t be daunted by the prospect of meeting the majority of the remaining teams.
Celtic’s main objective is to regain the league title and return to the lucrative Champions League group stages. They are in pole position to achieve championship glory, but an extended European run would complement, rather than hinder, their title bid.
Celtic were dynamic and scored for free in the Europa League. They were relentless in the final third, but defensive mishaps led to their demise. Naive defending cost them dearly and they conceded 15 goals in the group stage – more than any other team in the competition.
Postecoglou is not one to compromise on its philosophy. His expansive style has taken Celtic to the top of the Premiership, but his unwavering approach can lead to difficulties down the road against high-caliber opposition.
A Scottish club have not lifted a European trophy since Aberdeen defeated Hamburg in the 1983 Super Cup. The Old Firm are close to ending the drought, but the wait continues. When an opening emerges, as it could for Celtic this year, it is vital to seize the opportunity.
The Conference League was not on Celtic’s radar when they entered the Champions League qualifying stages in July, but they now have a third chance to make a splash on the continent.
Celtic should overcome Bodø/Glimt – and victory over the Norwegians should provide them with a platform to embark on a deep run.
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