The Old Firm in Europe – Europa League Preview

This Thursday sees both Celtic and Rangers compete in the final round of Europa League qualifiers, with the two Scottish clubs on the verge of the group stages. Taylor Murray previews both games and gives an insight into the European history of the Old Firm, while also going into what these games can mean on a greater scale.

Despite their heated and historic domestic rivalry, both Celtic and Rangers have been spurred on by each other in European competition, with both clubs qualifying from particularly testing groups last season.

The Old Firm are a force to be reckoned with in Scotland. Both teams have dominated the game domestically for many years, with Celtic having won the top-flight title a total of 51 times, whilst Rangers have won it 54 times. The two Glasgow sides have become very comfortable in occupying first and second over the years, with the other teams in the league left chasing them for third. Certain teams have sussed them out in recent years, however – Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock side in 2018 made life very difficult for the Old Firm, boasting an impressive record against both throughout the season.

When it comes to European competitions, both teams have a rich history to look back on and be proud of. Celtic became the first British team to win the European Cup in 1967, as they beat Inter Milan 2-1 in Lisbon, the team being dubbed as “The Lisbon Lions” in recognition of their efforts. Rangers have also had success in Europe – they played a part in the inaugural European Cup Winners’ Cup, whilst also being the second British team to reach a final in Europe. Rangers managed to lift a European trophy of their own in 1972, as they beat Dynamo Moscow 3-2 at the Camp Nou in Barcelona to win the Cup Winners’ Cup.

Both teams are in European action this week, as they play the final match of their Europa League qualifying campaign. Victory for both teams will see them entered into the group stages of the competition, where they both found success last season, making it through their groups – Celtic topped theirs, while Rangers finished second behind Porto. The latter ended up going further in the competition, being knocked out by Bayer Leverkusen in the round of 16, while Celtic were eliminated at the hands of Copenhagen in the round of 32. Both teams will be looking to build and improve upon their success last year – that is, if they make it through this final game.

Celtic vs FK Sarajevo

If we’re being completely honest, Celtic have really let their standards slip in European competition over the last few years. The club haven’t played Champions League football since the 2017/18 season, with current manager Neil Lennon having been unable to guide them back to the most prestigious of European competitions. That being said, Lennon did lead the club to one of the greatest night’s in their history. In November 2012, during his first spell in charge, Lennon sent his team out at Celtic Park to face one of the best Barcelona teams in history, featuring the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Against all odds and after retaining just 16% of possession on the night, Celtic ran out as 2-1 winners, with Tony Watt (then a teenager) scoring Celtic’s second late on in the game.

Tony Watt (now at Motherwell) was the man who sealed a historic win for Celtic back in 2012, as his late goal doubled Celtic’s advantage against European giants Barcelona, in what would eventually be a 2-1 win for the Glasgow side.

Neil Lennon’s second time in charge of the Celtic dug out in Europe hasn’t been as wonderful. They have had some amazing results in Europe, beating Lazio in Rome with a wonderful performance which saw them take a huge step to the knockout rounds of Europe, for example. However, they have had some equally shocking results, the latest being beaten at Celtic Park by Ferencváros, who ultimately went onto qualify for the Champions League. Despite this, Celtic should look at themselves and wonder why they are not currently sitting in the Champions League group stages. They certainly have the squad capable of beating the likes of Ferencváros or Cluj (another calamitous night) and while the argument could be made for Celtic having had a bad day at the office, these bad days have become too frequent in European competition. Despite it all, Celtic need to forget all about their Champions League woes (for this season) as they gear up for a clash with FK Saravejo of Bosnia and Herezegovina, with entry to the Europa League group stage on the line.

FK Sarajevo come into the game in decent form, as they are unbeaten in their last five games, scoring 14 goals and conceding six. The two sides have met before, meeting in the first-round qualifiers last year for the Champions League, with the Scottish champions running out 5-2 winners on aggregate, winning 3-1 and 2-1 respectively. To help the Bosnian side as much as possible, the Bosnian FA have given their side a free weekend in order to prepare – as for Celtic, they’ve just hosted Hibernian at Celtic Park as they continue to keep the pressure on Rangers in first place.

According to The Scotsman, the Bosnian sides’ pacey winger, Matthias Fanimo, looks to be the danger man for Celtic’s opponents – the Glasgow side may well look to fullback Jeremie Frimpong as a natural counter, with the young defender having plenty of speed himself.

One problem that Celtic face is the prospect of coming into this match without the free-scoring Albian Ajeti, a new recruit this summer from West Ham. The Swiss striker has five goals in six Premiership matches and having only started in three of those appearances, he’s averaging a goal every 47 minutes. The striker limped off in the first half against Hibs with what looked like a hamstring injury – Lennon would later confirm that he may be out of action “for a few weeks.” Celtic are also currently without key players in Christopher Jullien and James Forrest due to injury, while the talismanic Odsonne Edouard hasn’t looked himself this season. This could be down to the constant rumours linking the French striker with a move away from Celtic Park, or it could simply be a rough patch. Whatever the case, Celtic will be looking to their main man to be able to provide the goods to help them progress.

Trying to predict the Celtic lineup has been difficult lately, especially when Lennon has been playing players in unnatural positions, such as Ryan Christie as a striker, rather than in his natural role in attacking midfield. That being said, Lennon knows the importance of reaching the group stages in this current climate. 

Celtic Line-Up – 3-5-2

Barkas

Bitton – Ajer – Duffy

Frimpong – Christie – Brown – McGregor – Taylor

Elyounoussi – Edouard

Rangers VS Galatasaray

If there was one thing that has characterised Steven Gerrard’s time as Rangers manager, it would be his tremendous record in Europe – at the time of writing, Rangers have played 34 times in Europe under Gerrard, winning 17, drawing 12 and only losing five.

Ryan Kent scored the goal that would see Rangers advance to the round of 16 last season against Braga, with the English winger being in a spell of good goalscoring form coming into the Galatasary match.

Losing only 5 games in Europe in any capacity after that number of games is an amazing achievement. Gerrard has managed to beat teams such as Porto, Feyenoord and Braga, whilst also drawing with the likes of Villareal. Without a domestic trophy during his reign, most of Gerrard’s success at Rangers can be whittled down to his progression of the team in European competition. This season, Gerrard is looking to end his trophy-less run, and has started very strong in the league, breaking a 100-year-old record in Scotland after keeping seven clean sheets in their first seven league games.

This Rangers team has really evolved since the former Liverpool captain’s appointment and if Gerrard does manage to overcome the Turkish giants in Galatasary, Rangers will have reached the Europa League group stages three times under his guidance. This shouldn’t be underestimated, as before Gerrard’s arrival, Rangers hadn’t made an appearance in the group stage of any European competition since the 2010/11 season. Two seasons later, Rangers were banished to League Two and had to work their way back up from the bottom division. Rangers fans got their first taste of European football in almost a decade in 2017, but saw their Europa League qualifying campaign end after just one round, after being knocked out by Luxembourgian side Progres Niederkorn – a night many fans will want to forget. Since then, things have consistently improved in Europe, with last season’s campaign seeing them as the only Scottish team in the round of 16, with their campaign ending at the hands of Bayer Leverkusen.

Last season, Galatasary finished in sixth in the Turkish Super Lig, in a season that was considered as underwhelming and an overall failure, especially considering their consistent presence in and around the Turkish league title over the years.

The Turkish side has a number of familiar names within their squad, with former Atletico Madrid striker Radamel Falcao leading their line. Additionally, Dutch international Ryan Babel and former Barcelona winger Arda Turan can be found on their books – however, Turan looks set to miss out on a visit to Ibrox, as the Turkish international tested positive for COVID-19.

Rangers go into this game after a comfortable 5-1 win against Motherwell. Players such as Jordan Jones and Cedric Itten will have impressed Gerrard in the game, with the manager having been keen to have more options available for his front line. However, Rangers still have a few injury concerns, as Itten looks to have picked up a knock on Tuesday and is a doubt for Thursday with Kemar Roofe, Nikola Katic and Joe Aribo still missing. That being said, Gerrard confirmed that Ryan Jack and Brandon Barker were back in full training, meaning they may feature in the squad on Thursday.

In the last two seasons, Rangers have had to overcome FC Ufa and Legia Warsaw to reach the group stages, but Galatasary have a history of European pedigree behind them, making this one of the biggest European matches in Rangers’ recent history. That being said, Rangers have been victorious against some real European heavyweights over the years, so shouldn’t be fazed by this occasion.

Rangers Line-Up – 4-3-3

McGregor

Tavernier – Goldson – Helander – Barasic

Arfield – Jack – Davis

Kent – Morelos – Hagi

Round Up

There’s a much bigger picture for these games – if Celtic get into the group stages, it will help to prevent a lot of Celtic fans from turning against Lennon. Despite their domestic dominance, many believe that Lennon’s appointment was a step back in terms of establishing the team as a true European outfit, but a win in Bosnia on Thursday could help to deter the doubters – for a bit longer, at least. Additionally, with the club having missed out on Champions League football and the riches it can bestow, qualification will be essential for Celtic if they are to have any financial gain this season, with these unprecedented times preventing fans from attending fixtures and thus cutting off a massive stream of revenue.

The same can be said for Rangers, who’s advancement into the group stages could well help them to attract the talent that could help them not only advance further in Europe, but end Celtic’s domestic dominance.

There is also the small matter of the coefficient points gained from advancement – with Scotland being closer than ever to reclaiming an automatic place in the Champions League group stages, advancement from both clubs will be crucial in terms of the long term involvement of Scottish clubs in European competition. As they always do, the Glasgow clubs have pushed themselves further in Europe over the last couple of years and will be hoping to do the same this season – not only for themselves, but for their country as well.

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