Friday, 5 August 2011
Scotland's Europa Leauge opponents
Opponents: FC Sion (Switzerland)
How did they get here?: Won the 2011 Swiss Cup
Star Player: Dragan Mrda
Switzerland hasn’t been the kindest of travelling spots for Celtic. Although the defeat to Basel in August 2002 ultimately proved a blessing in disguise as Martin O’Neil’s side dropped down into the Uefa Cup for what was to be a memorable adventure, the bad memories of defeats to other Swiss sides FC Zurich and Neuchatel Xamax in the past two decades remain.
Like those ties, this one with Sion is fraught with difficulty. The provincial club from the south-west of the country have been gradually on the up since financial problems saw them relegated and on the brink of bankruptcy in 2002.
They eventually won promotion back to the top-flight in 2006 and have regularly competed for honours since, becoming the first Second Division side to win the Swiss Cup in 2006 and repeating that feat in 2009 and last season.
That cup victory gained Sion access to this stage of the tournament, meaning they are one of the few unseeded sides that haven’t already competed in Europe this season. However, lessons should be learned from the strong performances of other Swiss sides on a similar level. FC Thun, who finished behind Sion last season, knocked out Palermo in the previous round.
There will be a few familiar names for Celtic to contend with. Former Hearts defender José Gonçalves signed this summer from St. Gallen, whilst Pascal Feindouno who was on trial with Celtic in November has also joined from Monaco. Ex-Barcelona midfielder Gabri also brings a wealth of European experience to a squad without much pedigree at this level.
The danger man however is Serbian international Dragan Mrđa who scored eight times in 18 appearances in his first season in Switzerland last term.
The early start to the Scottish season is unfortunately unlikely to give Celtic any advantage as Sion started their own campaign a week before the SPL kick-off and have recorded two wins and one defeat from three matches so far. The enforced switch that means the second-leg will be played in Switzerland could also prove a disadvantage for Neil Lennon’s side given their historically poor form on the road in Europe.
On paper though this is still a tie Celtic should win. Sion are not one of the traditional powerhouses of Swiss football and don’t have anywhere near the financial backing or support base that Celtic do. However, they are no weaker than Utrecht, the team Celtic met at this stage last season with calamitous consequences.
Opponents: Maribor (Slovenia)
How did they get here?: Knocked out of Champions League qualifying by Maccabi Haifa
Star Player: Marcos Tavares
Maribor have been the dominant side in Slovenian football in recent times with nine titles in the past 15 years. However, the rapid progress made by the Slovenian national team - who currently sit 39 places above Scotland in the FIFA rankings – has not translated into more success on the European front at club level.
The principal factor in this disparity is that the vast majority of Slovenian players move abroad at a young age to seek the challenge and wages of better leagues around Europe. The current Maribor side is a prime example of this movement with goalkeeper Jasmin Handanovič the only player who was part of the Slovenian squad at last summer’s World Cup.
Like so many sides around Europe, Maribor have turned to nomadic Brazilians to fill the void left by their best local players upping sticks. The squad boasts three Brazilians with captain and striker Marcos Tavares their standout talent.
Marcos scored twice against Maccabi Haifa in the third round of Champions League qualifying but it wasn’t enough as the Israelis progressed 3-2 on aggregate and Maribor, like Rangers, had to take the fall into Europe’s second tier competition.
Another notable performer is Agim Ibraimi, the creative midfielder who Scotland fans will become acquainted with in the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers as he is regarded as one of Macedonia’s great young hopes.
In an era where nothing can be taken for granted when it comes to Scottish sides in Europe this is another potential banana skin. Rangers should be in better shape come the end of the month with Ally McCoist hoping to add another few names to his threadbare squad but expect this to be a much tighter encounter than Rangers’ 6-1 aggregate win in the pair’s only previous meeting in 2001.
Opponents: Tottenham Hotspur
How did they get here?: Finished fifth in the Premier League
Star Player: Gareth Bale
Unlike the Old Firm, Hearts will not be entering the unknown when they take on Spurs later in the month.
It is a tie that appeals on the financial and prestige fronts, even if some within Tynecastle would have been hoping for an easier route to the group stages.
There could be hope for Hearts in the reality that this competition is far from Tottenham’s priority. Harry Redknapp admitted as much towards the end of last season when he voiced his fears that playing regularly on a Thursday night could undermine his side’s attempts at getting back into the top four of the Premier League.
Moreover, there is an air of instability currently surrounding White Hart Lane in the form of speculation over Luka Modric’s future. The Croatian is angling for a move to Chelsea and whilst chairman Daniel Levy insists he will not be sold, Spurs have been unable to strengthen their squad this summer. The potential £30million windfall from selling Modric would at least allow Redknapp to improve the squad in other areas of the field, most notably up front.
Hearts will be hoping Spurs’ inactivity in the transfer market lasts at least another couple of weeks, but even without new additions this is a squad filled with immensely talented players that made the quarter-finals of the Champions League last season.
On paper it is no contest, but as many Scottish sides have found out in recent seasons, reputation is no guarantee of success.