Celtic should be confident of further Europa League progression after being given a handy round of 32 tie against Danish champions FC Copenhagen.
A stellar group stage campaign peaked with Olivier Ntcham’s memorable 95th minute winner against Lazio to seal Celtic’s European participation continued into the new year for the third year running. A 3-1 win over Rennes ensured top spot with a game to spare. That gave them the advantage of being a seeded team for yesterday’s draw.
Potential matchups with the likes of Roma, Wolves and Shakhtar Donetsk looked far more difficult on paper. After being paired with Zenit St Petersburg and Valencia in the last two years, Celtic manager Neil Lennon admitted he was pleased with the outcome:
“I think it’s a good draw when you consider we’ve avoided the Champions League teams dropping down into the Europa League and maybe some of the perceived bigger clubs,” he said.
“They are still a team with a great European pedigree over the years whether it be the Champions League or Europa League. They did very well to come out of the group.”
Who are FC Copenhagen?
This is not the first time the two sides have met: in 2006, they were drawn together in the Champions League group stages. Celtic triumphed 1-0 in Glasgow on their way to qualification to the last-16 despite losing 3-1 in the reverse fixture.
This year, Copenhagen finished second in a Europa League group behind Malmo and ahead of Dynamo Kyiv and Lugano. Like Celtic, they had dropped down to Europe’s second-tier after failing to make it through Champions League qualifying. Two 1-0 wins, three 1-1 draws and a 1-0 defeat was hardly made for the most thrilling of campaigns, but it was enough to get the job done. A continuation of that defensive solidity would make life very difficult for the likes of Odsonne Edouard and Ryan Christie.
Domestically, things haven’t been quite as simple. They are four points behind leaders FC Midtjylland in the Danish Superliga with six games left as they chase a fourth league crown in five years. A 4-1 defeat to their title rivals last month was a severe blow. That result should encourage Celtic given Midtjylland’s own performances in Europe this year. A comprehensive 7-3 aggregate defeat to Rangers saw them eliminated from Europa League qualifying. If that can be taken as an indicator of Copenhagen’s class, then it can only be good news.
Another factor which could work in Celtic’s favour is Copenhagen’s lengthy winter break which has just come into effect. Yesterday’s 2-1 win over OB is the last competitive game they will play until February 16 – four days before the first leg.
— Celtic Football Club (@CelticFC) December 16, 2019
Who are the dangermen?
Cypriot international Pieros Sotiriou is Copenhagen’s top scorer with 13 goals in all competitions, followed closely by club legend Dame N’Doye. The Senegalese striker is in his second spell at Telia Parken and is the club’s all-time leading goalscorer with 115 goals in 212 appearances. Injuries have hampered him this season, but the 34-year old has still managed to strike eight times.
Creativity is provided by experienced playmaker Zeca and winger Viktor Fischer. Fischer was actually linked with a move to Parkhead two years ago after an unsuccessful spell in England with Middlesbrough. That transfer failed to materialise, and he instead ended up at Bundesliga side Mainz before landing back in Denmark last year. He has excelled since returning to his homeland and earned a place in their 2018 World Cup squad.
The most familiar name to Celtic fans, though, will be former Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner. He was a surprise signing for Copenhagen on deadline day this summer but has been a miserable flop so far. No goals in his first seven games saw him axed from the starting line-up and he was only afforded a solitary minute of game time in the Europa League (Transfermarkt). It wouldn’t be a shock if he was no longer at the club by the time the knockout stage begins.
Having not won a proper European knockout tie since 2004, this is an opportunity Celtic mustn’t let slip through their fingers. By the time the Europa League resumes it will have been almost exactly a year since Brendan Rodgers shock departure. The danger at that point was Celtic would go backwards without the man who brought them so much success. Instead, Lennon has the chance to accomplish something Rodgers couldn’t by making a real impression in Europe.