Europa League Preview with A Celtic State of Mind – The road to Gdansk resumes…

KEVIN GRAHAM:

It seems so long since the sweet smell of European adventure has aroused our senses. It’s been in the back of our minds as we fully focused on domestic stresses. This week actually does feel like a break from that. A wee holiday from what seems to be the all consuming quest for the title. A lads away day where you get to play paint ball, team build and get to know the guys from accounts.

It’s more important than that. We got through an extremely tasty group with some style, and became poster boys for the anti-fascist left worldwide. A hat that fits comfortably. European success and doing the right thing.

We have reached this level on many occasions. Seems to be our ceiling where sometimes the draws are unkind. The draw could have been worse this time. We have a team from a league similar to ours. One that is ignored by the world but has a hidden honesty in what they do and the means by which they do it.

There will be a domestic feel to this game and that should suit us. No Latin tactics or tricks or slick Spanish soccer or oligarch-funded vanity projects. Just us and them. 180 minutes. Winner takes all. There is no favourites; only hope, for once.

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COLIN WATT:

FC København

Founded – 1992

Ground – Telia Parken (Capacity 38,065)

Manager – Ståle Solbakken (2nd Spell)

Position in the Danish League – 2nd (7 points behind FC Midtjylland)

Top Goalscorer – Pieros Sotiriou (13 goals in 29 games)

Route to last 32 – Finished 2nd in Europa League Group B (Behind Malmo FF)

Celtic return to European action on Thursday night in a tie which is absolutely winnable over the two legs.

Celtic return to Denmark for the first time since the two sides met back in the 2006/07 Champions League. These encounters resulted in Celtic winning 1-0 in Glasgow, but losing 3-1 in Denmark. Despite this, Celtic qualified for the last 16 under the guidance of Gordon Strachan. Celtic manager Neil Lennon was part of the starting XI in both of those games, whilst København’s current manager was in his first spell in charge of the Danish side.

This season in European football for Celtic has certainly been impressive, with back-to-back victories over Lazio, complemented by victories at home against Cluj and Rennes, helping the Bhoys to top their table on 13 points.

For the Danish side, it was more of a nail-biter with qualification only confirmed on the last match-day. A draw for Dynamo Kiev at home to Lugano was only enough for third place as København fell to a home defeat against Malmo. Finishing on 9 points with 2 wins, 3 draws and 1 defeat, overall the record wasn’t too bad for the Danish side.

Both teams have had the luxury of a winter break, however, Scotland’s two weeks is certainly trumped by Denmark’s Superliga who break for two months between mid-December and mid-February, with København returning on Valentine’s Day with a loss to lowly-ranked Esjberg.

Celtic’s form since the return from the winter break, on the other hand, has been nothing short of exceptional – 9 wins from 9, 29 goals scored with only 4 conceded. The form of Odsonne Edouard and the return from injury of a lot of key players has just come at the right time for the Celts.

Celtic have deployed the 3-5-2 formation for most of those games, however, I reckon that they will return to the 4-2-3-1 formation that proved so successful over the last few months, with the likes of Jeremie Frimpong returning to the side. The injury sustained by Greg Taylor on Sunday at Pittodrie really couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Gourock player, as he was really starting to cement his place in the side. Hopefully he won’t be out for too long, but I fully expect Johnny Hayes or Boli Bolingoli to be comfortable over the next few weeks.

Going back to a back two would most likely suit Jozo Simunovic. The defender has played a lot of football over the last few weeks and still doesn’t look like his body can cope with the strain of two games a week. It is very shrewd of Celtic to pick and choose his matches as they try and nurse him fully fit.

A return of 4-2-3-1 could see Ryan Christie back in the starting 11. Christie had been a key part of the side until his suspension from the 29 December game, but he has since found his opportunities confined to coming off the bench. His return could come wide left of the three behind the striker, with that position likely to be filled by the Scotsman or Mo Elyounoussi, another player who is also trying to get back to his best following his injury problems.

Despite his good form, I’d expect Leigh Griffiths having to settle with a place on the bench with Odsonne Edouard leading the line. The Frenchman’s form since the winter break has been sensational, with 7 goals and plenty of man-of-the-match performances.

København lined up on Friday night without key players Viktor Fischer and the suspended Victor Nelsson. Greek midfielder Zeca, an ever-present in the midfield having made 34 appearances this season, once again captained the side. Viktor Fischer is a name most Celtic fans will remember, with the Dane being part of the Ajax side that faced Celtic in the Europa League back in 2015/16, scoring in the 2-2 game at the Amsterdam Arena.

København haven’t conceded a lot of goals this season at home (8 in 10 games) but concede more away from home (15 in 11 games). They’re also not a side who have scored a lot of goals, especially in Europe where they managed 5 goals in 6 games, whilst conceding 4 in the 6 games. Stats like that suggest that this first leg, especially, could be a very close encounter with perhaps only the odd goal in it.

I would be more than happy for Celtic to come away with a 0-0 from this game with the emphasis on winning the tie at home in front a sold-out Paradise!

However, let’s be positive and hope that Celtic can get something in a very winnable tie in Denmark – I’ll predict Celtic to win 1-0.

Expected line-up: Forster, Frimpong, Ajer, Jullien, Hayes, Brown, McGregor, Christie, Ntcham, Forrest, Edouard.

ANDREW RAFFERTY:

Copenhagen is a city famous for fairytales. And for a club like Celtic, which has “always had an element of fairytale” to it, is Copenhagen the best place to continue our Europa League dream? Probably.

The squad is firing on all cylinders at the moment. We seem to be brimming with confidence. Any changes Lennon may make tactically will be handled well, as we have seen in recent matches.

Our opponents have struggled since their own winter break. They may not be in as strong a place mentally as they perhaps would have been towards the end of December, when they were able to string some decent results together.

All the signs suggest this is a decent opportunity for Celtic to continue the great away European form and progress to the next round.

I am sure our fans will enjoy the city and “drink and clink one down” as they enjoy a Wonderful, Wonderful Celtic performance.

2-1 to the away team.

ALAN MORRISON:

FC Copenhagen, Celtic’s next Europa League opponents, provide an exemplar for how clubs like Celtic need to operate in today’s European footballing landscape.

Their data-driven recruitment, backed up by rarely-changing management personnel and tactical stability, has seen them sell a remarkable number of players for vast profits whilst winning the Danish Superliga more often than not, and qualifying for European Group Stage football 13 seasons in 14 (yes, they have to qualify). Two players left for £9m fees in the Summer (we came across Vavro at SS Lazio).

This is always a difficult balancing act, as even being guided by high quality scouting and data, it won’t always work out. And some star players are difficult to replace. So, the Danes find themselves 7 points shy of FC Midtjlland (another data-driven success story), a side woeful in losing to The Rangers earlier in the European campaign.

Progress to this stage has been eased with a narrow win over Estonian opposition, and a 2nd place Group finish, where only 2 wins were achieved, both against the 7th best team in Switzerland.

This is a great draw for Celtic. But we all know dangers lie ahead in these ties. The opposition will be strong, use set pieces effectively, be defensively solid, and have more attacking threat than most from Scotland.

Well kent face Bendtner is in their squad but is unlikely to feature prominently thus protecting the centre circle from wearing out.

In midfield, one-time Ajax wonderkid Fischer is a threat supplying chances (7 assists). A huge bow for them is that Cypriot striker Sotiriou, on 13 for the season, looks to have left for our pals Astana.

Zeca, the Portugese-Greek, anchors midfield aided by the physical Falk.

They will probably play 4-4-2 and Lennon has decisions to make, probably influenced by injury to Taylor.

Celtic obviously come into this in fine form and without even putting the foot down in all their recent wins. The Hoops have mastered the art of picking their moments to devastate opposition with bursts of quality. The bench is now strong if the first XI is labouring.

It’s a favourable draw but we know Scandinavian opposition will be physically tough and uncompromising with enough quality to be of concern.

This Celtic side are in a great place and I’d go for a 2-1 Celtic win with another major goal from Forrest.

KEVIN MCCLUSKIE:

The road to Gdansk resumes on Thursday with a trip to Copenhagen as Celtic look to replicate their imperious domestic form since returning from the winter break on the European front.

December’s Round of 32 draw was kind on Celtic as the Hoops avoided one of the tournament’s remaining big guns, instead, landing a tie against a side very much our equal. Given Celtic’s relentless form so far in 2020, Neil Lennon’s Bhoys will be quietly confident of securing of another European scalp.

Odsonne Edouard, in the form of his life, will be the key man again for Celtic with his goals and general link-up play vital to Celtic’s chances of success against a defence that has conceded over one goal per game in the league so far this season.

Celtic will naturally need to be wary of the threat posed by Copenhagen, which will be slightly blunted by the absence of ex-Ajax forward Viktor Fischer, but the confidence gained from the draw in Rennes and win in Rome in the group stages mean that Celtic are not coming to Copenhagen merely to make up the numbers.

The last time Celtic faced Copenhagen, the Danes ran out comfortable 3-1 winners in what was a Champions League dead rubber for Celtic. I suspect Thursday’s game may have a more pleasant ending.

As a side note, Thursday’s game will have its place in Celtic history by virtue of being the first Celtic game involving the much-maligned VAR; let’s hope it doesn’t distract from another fine Celtic performance.

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