Celtic have had a long winter to reflect on their European football hopes. Through domestic ups and downs, they’ve maintained their stranglehold over Scottish football for the most part, but this Thursday again invite one of Europe’s elite sides to Celtic Park.
This time it’s the turn of Russian Premier League side FC Zenit, providing Celtic’s first test in the knockout stages of the UEFA Europa League for the first time in three years, when they went up against Inter Milan.
Since their underwhelming loss to Anderlecht at Celtic Park in their final Champions League group stage match in December, worries amongst the Celtic support about their team’s ability to compete in continental competition have intensified, to the point that many are now dreading the match on Thursday night.
There’s a bleak truth to those worries given their defensive frailties and, according to OddsChecker, the Russian side are slight favourites heading into the match despite having not played a competitive match for months and having to travel the breadth of Europe and several time zones to arrive in Glasgow.
However, Thursday match should again be seen as an opportunity for this Celtic side to reach their potential and prove to supporters that aren’t simply happy sitting atop Scottish football and being the best side in an under performing footballing nation.
Oddly, it’s quite difficult for Celtic fans to either feel aggrieved by the current status of Brendan Rodgers’ side, or feel enthused. Usually football fans feel one or the other, it’s that kind of black and white environment.
Well on their way to domestic treble of trophies for a second season in a row and virtually assured of a seventh successive league title, it might appear churlish to some for Celtic fans to have any complaints whatsoever right now.
Still, their form this season has been well below the extreme highs of Brendan Rodgers first term in charge and there are signs of complacency and stagnation creeping into many aspects of the club.
A lack of ambition in the transfer market despite hugely positive interim financial results has also led to questions about what Celtic’s long-term view is.
Are they simply content to be a few steps ahead of Rangers? Are they the benchmark? Or do Celtic truly harbour ambitions to make a success of themselves in Europe?
For many, keeping their foot on the throat of their city rivals will be more than enough, but in order to progress and achieve their potential under Brendan Rodgers Celtic must strive for more and this Thursday’s Zenit clash is a time to show fans they are learning at European level.
To be clear, it’s wrong to expect Celtic to progress against the Russian side. They have resources far beyond the Scottish champions and are a side that will be looking to reach the deep end of the competition. There can be no doubt about the size of the task facing Brendan Rodgers’ men, especially in the away leg.
Still, apart from one result against Anderlecht this season, Celtic have failed to impress anyone, not least their own fans. Celtic Park used to once be a fortress, even in times when dwarfed by the riches of visiting clubs.
For years now there’s been a fear in Celtic’s game at this level, something which has failed to be improved under Brendan Rodgers despite his successes domestically.
It’s a gap that has proved insurmountable but for one night only, Celtic have to prove they are capable of at least competing with an elite side in Europe. They have to raise their game, play to their full capabilities and stop the basic errors that have littered their European matches this season. Even in defeat it’s a night can prove to be positive for the club.
If they are as passive as against Anderlecht last time out, it’ll only fuel the suspicions that the club aren’t interested in being a force at this level but simply eager to bank the cash from the group stages of the Champions League and use it to maintain control over their Scottish opponents.
Success is not about progression but about the manner of performance and proving to fans there’s hope of football feasts beyond their bread and butter.