Celtic v Zenit
UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE ROUND OF 32
Venue: Celtic Park
Kick off: 20:05
Referee: Damir Skomina (SVN)
European football returns to Paradise as Celtic host Russian side Zenit on Thursday. The blues of St. Petersburg face the Bhoys for the first time in UEFA competition, and they will prove a formidable test for the Glaswegians having qualified in emphatic style from their group.
Scoring more goals and amassing more points than any other side in the group stages, Roberto Mancini's team come to Scotland to play their first competitive game since the first week of December, as the Russian winter break runs until March.
That could be seen as a key advantage for Celtic, who have played 6 matches since their own hibernation period (W5, L1). Zenit fell at the first knockout hurdle last season, having struggled to get to full speed with the lack of proper games.
Celtic also hold a decent record against Russian opposition, having won half of their matches of the 6 played (W3 D2 L1). Their record in Glasgow is less impressive (W1 D1 L1), although they did win the most recent encounter, 2-1 against Spartak Moskva in the 2012/13 UEFA Champions League group stage.
Zenit's solitary experience of Scottish opposition came on arguably the greatest night in the St Petersburg club's history – when they defeated Celtic's former arch-rivals Rangers 2-0 in the 2007/08 UEFA Cup final in Manchester.
The manager, Roberto Mancini, also achieved arguably his greatest feat in Manchester, when his City side won the Premier League title in memorable fashion on the final day against QPR in 2012. Celtic's Kolo Toure was part of the Italian's squad at the time, and there's more familiar faces in the form of Dedryck Boyata and Scott Sinclair who also played under Mancini at City, although the former will miss the home leg through injury.
Sinclair and Boyata both worked under Mancini at City, the Englishman criticized his former gaffer for 'toying with his career'.
Home advantage is something that Celtic historically look to exploit, however recent form in UEFA tournaments will have hoops fans nervous as they look to end a baron run in Glasgow's east-end. Celtic have not tasted victory in any of their last 11 European home matches outside the qualifying phase, losing eight including the last five. They have also gone five successive UEFA Europa League home games without a win (D2 L3).
Zenit are playing springtime European football for the eighth year in a row. This is the fifth season during that sequence in which they have participated in the Europa League round of 32. They are undefeated in seven UEFA outings (W6 D1), although they have not kept a clean sheet in their last five, conceding one goal in each of those encounters.
Celtic will have to rip up the form guide and raise their performance to maximise their chances of progress, taking a lead over to Russia will be crucial, although a clean sheet could arguably be more vital given the importance of away goals in the knockout rounds.
One thing that doesn't help their plight is the number of injuries within the squad. 7 players in total who will miss out are striker Leigh Griffiths, goalkeeper Craig Gordon, midfielders Tom Rogic, Patrick Roberts, Stuart Armstrong, and defenders Mikael Lustig and Dedryck Boyata. Zenit have no injuries currently.
Despite the injuries however, Celtic still hold a threat with players such as Moussa Dembele, Scott Sinclair and James Forrest all capable of coming up with a goal in the big games. New arrival Charly Musonda will also look to prove his potential on the European stage as he settles in to life in Glasgow - if ever there was a time to announce your arrival it's on a European night at Parkhead...
Win, lose or draw, ones things for sure, there's going to be a show - and the Bhoys from Glasgow will be there!
James Forrest scored a hat-trick in the Scottish Cup against Partick Thistle at the weekend.