Chris "Evil Genuis" Sutton wants the ground to swallow him up after Basel defeat

In 2002, Celtic looked on course for the Champions League group stages after overcoming a shock 1st minute goal against the “supposed lowly” FC Basle, they took a three one advantage over to the Swiss side for the return leg.  What occurred next was a shock which at the time shook the club to its core, but by the end of the year had galvanised the team on a European run of some pedigree – The team managed by the former Spurs manager, Cristian Gross, took full advantage of their Celtic Park away goal to go through with a two nil triumph which added to the Parkhead side’s unwanted European record which, has not improved of much accord since.

Almost a decade on, Manchester United, having failed to beat the Swiss Home & Away, were dumped into the Europa League last night as their red & blue adversaries marched through as Group C Runners-Up with Benfica. The last time the Red Devils failed to advance through the groups back in 2006, Sir Alex Ferguson, dumbfounded and confused said “We probably lacked that experience and ability and when we needed top players they weren’t there”.

Basel fans in a sea of Red celebrate United's elimination

Since the humbling against their City rivals, United have stuttered and failed to impress in the League and been knocked out of the League Cup by Crystal Palace – the six one defeat has severely knocked United’s’ confidence and they have looked far from convincing in any matches since. Injuries have taken their toll in defence and an unsettled front line has shown as the Red Devil’s have only scored more than once in their last nine league matches. When probed or challenged this season, they have been unable to rely on their experienced players such as Giggs, Rooney or Ferdinand to inspire them to victory and the whole team has looked frail and disjointed. I do foresee a bright future for this squad – a great plethora of the finest young talent has been added – and this learning curve of defeats & eliminations will stand them in good stead for the coming seasons and their hunger for success will grow.

Manchester City also joined them in the Europa League second stage, after an impressive win against a depleted Bayern Munich side which ultimately meant nothing due to Napoli’s win at Villareal which sent Mancini’s men into third position. Ten points have been enough in most seasons to guarantee a passage into the last 32 of Europe’s elite, and this number or lower has also seen CSKA Moscow, Lyon, Bayer Leverkusen, AC Milan, Marseille, and both Apoel and Zenit in Group G progress through safely this time out – Nine was also enough for Celtic in 2007 & 2008 to go through to the knockout stage, but just not enough in Martin O’Neill’s first Champions League adventure in 2002.

City’s group appeared on paper – and on the park – much harder to navigate and it was a valiant attempt by them in their first full Champions League season – United are one of the old guard and to finish above their three opponents should have been easily achievable for a side managed by Ferguson. Manchester City have built on last season’s FA Cup triumph to remain unbeaten and unchallenged at the top of the Premiership with the immense array of talent they have all over the pitch. I feel Mancini now will not just want to concentrate on the League – but also send out a message to Europe in the form of a Europa League final win to showcase their presence on the big stage, much like Mourinho did in Seville before Porto went on the next year and won the big prize.

Celtic travel away to Udine next Wednesday knowing a win in Italy will send them past the group stages at their opponents expense due to their head to head record, and into the draw which will contain both halfs of Manchester & Stoke City and possibly Fulham, Birmingham City & Spurs. Atletico Madrid dispatched the Bhoys at Celtic Park last Thursday and despite a promising start by Lennon’s men, they could not convert their early pressure into a crucial goal. Udinese Calcio sit joint second in Serie A with AC Milan thanks to a dogged, determined and luck ridden performance at the San Siro last weekend to take the spoils against Inter Milan. Celtic will need not only to overcome a top side in Udinese, but also an unbeaten home record in all competitions this season. The Bhoys themselves have gone thirteen games domestically unbeaten, and with Gary Hooper & Anthony Stokes in rich veins of form in front of goal – aswell as competing in a healthy goalscoring dual – both teams go into the tie high on confidence.

The Parkhead sides away form improved markedly in France away to Rennes, combating two previous defeats in Sion and Madrid which proved a cakewalk for the home sides. Hopefully the lure of European football post-Christmas can galvanise the Bhoys to a special win – the confidence which can be generated from a convincing win at home to Hearts on Saturday could also assist with the mindset. Two weeks later a depleted Rangers visit, low on confidence in recent weeks, Celtic’s continual progression in improving points and performance should see them sweep aside their rivals like Hurricane Bawbag did to my neighbour’s garden shed. The Italian Job could therefore propel the Hoops juggernaut to greater things on the domestic scene, and I do predict an inspired side will go into the game with nothing to fear with long-term absentees through injury also rejoining the squad to add more depth, options and dimensions.


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