Celtic’s case for defence is key to tie
Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers says his team are the underdogs against Zenit St Petersburg (pic: SNS Group)
Celtic will have to state a strong case for the defence if they are to entertain hopes of extending their stay in Europe.
Brendan Rodgers’ men are preparing to take on Zenit St Petersburg at Parkhead tonight in the knowledge that the Russians come into the first leg of the last-32 tie as top scorers in the group stages of the tournament.
Zenit’s record of 17 goals in their six games is a stark warning to the Hoops who have been far from water-tight this season. Celtic, in fact, had the worst defensive record in the Champions League group stage with 18 goals shipped in six games, albeit opponents included Paris St-Germain and Bayern Munich.
On the domestic front, Rodgers’ rearguard has also proved brittle, his defence having been breached 18 times in 26 league games. Last weekend’s 3-2 Scottish Cup win over Partick Thistle was further evidence of problems at the back.
Celtic have been shorn of the considerable presence of Craig Gordon through injury since qualifying for the Europa League by finishing third in their Champions League group behind PSG and Bayern Munich. They will have to rely on Dorus De Vries in goal, his only previous European start the 7-0 loss away to Barcelona.
Dedryck Boyata is also likely to be sidelined so there will be much expected of Jozo Simunovic after his poor showing against Thistle and Kristoffer Ajer, the talented but inexperienced teenager.
An extended winter break in Russia means Zenit arrive in Glasgow not having played a competitive match for two months.
Sharpness may be a concern for Roberto Mancini’s side but Rodgers believes the Russians go into the game – which will be screened in 137 countries – as favourites despite their recent inactivity.
“They will probably be favourites to go through, people in football will certainly see Zenit as the team who are favourites to go through,” said the Hoops boss.
“Our objective was to get through the group stages of the Champions League, which was a great effort by the players.
“We can now focus on these two games against a very good side, with an excellent manager and another game that will really test us.
“We have always embraced every challenge we have faced on this European adventure over the last couple of seasons and we’ve got our rewards by getting through the Champions League group stage.
“Hopefully over the two games we can perform very well and get a result.”