As the Group Stages of the 2018-19 Europa League were drawn, it was noticeable how difficult the groups of Celtic and Rangers were.
The experience and calibre of opposition was in abundance: the challenge ahead was to quality for the knockout round but could either or both of Scotland’s sides remaining within European competition this campaign go beyond Christmas?
As the fixtures were announced, a home match with Rosenborg was likely the best start Brendan Rodgers’ side could’ve hoped for. A packed Celtic Park would invite the Norwegians to Glasgow, but with the hope of sending the back to Scandinavia with nothing to show for their effort.
It was a cagey affair at the home of the Scottish champions. Odsonne Edouard led the line with attack-minded midfielders Tom Rogic, Callum McGregor and James Forrest in support. However, it was the directness; pace and power of Kieran Tierney that caused Rini Coolen’s men the most trouble during a tame opening 45 minutes.
A double substitution early in the second-half saw Rogic and Forrest go off for youngster Mikey Johnston and fellow wide-man Scott Sinclair. Those switches seemed to liven up the Celts, but, the Hoops remained toothless in attack.
In saying that, Craig Gordon had fairly little to do either as the game looked to be ending in a dour 0-0 draw to open up Group B: the hosts threw their final roll of the dice with 15 minutes remaining as Edouard was replaced by Leigh Griffiths. BT Sport co-commentator Chris Sutton scathed at Rodgers’ decision to wait so long to bring on the Scotland international. In the end, it was the perfect call by the ex-Liverpool gaffer.
With 87 minutes on the clock, a long ball was launched into the area by captain Scott Brown, which was headed on by Dedryck Boyata, before Griffiths nodded past Andre Hansen for a late and dramatic winner. Supporters were beginning to leave Parkhead but rushed back in from the concourses throughout the arena to celebrate a vital goal so early on in Celtic’s Europa League campaign. While frustrations will lie within the performance, the most important thing is the result for the men in green and white and ultimately, that is what they have achieved. Tougher challenges lie ahead, with both Red Bull clubs – Salzburg and Leipzig up next for the Hoops, with both matches away from the home. The 3 points in Thursday evening’s encounter gives the Celts a small glimpse of hope when they head to Austria and Germany over the coming weeks.
While the Rosenborg tie was arguably the best possible start for Celtic, Rangers probably had the toughest – on paper at least – as they travelled to Spain to face La Liga outfit Villarreal.
Steven Gerrard’s men have only had one defeat during the short tenure of the former Liverpool midfielder and went into this match with an air of positivity and belief. Despite missing Colombian marksmen Alfredo Morelos, the Gers were confident they could upset the odds at the Estadio de la Ceramica.
But, the visitors got off to the worst possible start; inside 45 seconds, Carlos Bacca smashed home from the edge of the area to send the majority of the 18,000+ crowd into raptures. A long night looked to be awaiting the Bears.
A real fight and doggedness was shown by the Scottish Premiership outfit, as the 4th placed side within Scotland’s top-flight following five matches continued to plug away without overly concerning Andres Fernandez in the hosts goal.
Allan McGregor was helping keep the scoreline at a one goal deficit as the hour mark came and gone: despite some glaring misses and Rangers riding their luck at times, their counter-attacks continued to cause issues for Javi Calleja’s side.
On 67 minutes, Gerrard saw his teams persistence, patience and perseverance rewarded after a strong run by captain James Tavernier. As shouts for a penalty arose, Daniel Candeias played on, squaring the ball for Scott Arfield who rifled home to draw the sides level.
However, just two minutes later and the Gers found themselves behind again as Gerard Moreno as sent clear down the left by Santi Cazorla; the substitute cut inside full-back Borsa Barisic before firing low past McGregor at his near post.
Frustration was evident as Gerrard looked for some fresh impetus. Youngster Glenn Middleton was brought on and it was his ball down the left for Barisic which set up the fourth and final goal of the game, as Kyle Lafferty slotted home in front of the visiting supporters to draw the Bears once again.
Ross McCrorie and Graham Dorrans were brought on late on as Rangers held on despite some late scares, although they almost won it themselves through Arfield who was foiled by the goalkeeper as the clock ticked down.
A strong performance in a tough environment for the side who were rank outsiders in Group G. A lot of confidence should be, and will be, taken forward after a hearty display in Spain saw Rangers depart with a point. While nothing is settled after one match, 5 more performances of similar (or better) calibre and the Scottish side must fancy their chances of progression.
Overall, a good nights work for the Scottish sides? I think the answer has to be yes! While neither team ran the show or played scintillating stuff, they showed the guts required to go toe-to-toe with good quality opposition from across the continent. The old cliche probably stands – win your home games and get a point from away matches and you’ll do alright… Both sides seem to have got off to the best possible beginning after match-day one, but, tougher tests will lie ahead for either side. Confidence must be carried forward, but, there’s no room for an ounce of complacency.