Scottish football awarded extra European place from next season and both sides of the Old Firm can take credit

Roddy Forsyth
·5-min read
Rangers' Kemar Roofe, left, jubilates with teammates after scoring his sides second goal during a Europa League Group D  - AP
Rangers' Kemar Roofe, left, jubilates with teammates after scoring his sides second goal during a Europa League Group D - AP

The Old Firm sides extend their Europa League group campaigns on Thursday night - in markedly contrasting circumstances - but having already guaranteed Scotland an extra European place next season. Rangers reached the round of 16 of the Europa League and Celtic made the last 32 in last season’s competition and the positive impact on seedings means that the 2020-21 domestic title winners will enter the Champions League qualifiers in the third round, with the runners-up going into the second round.

The Scottish Cup winners will enter the Europa League in the third qualifying round and the third and fourth placed teams in the Scottish Premiership will feature in the second qualifying round of the inaugural Europa Conference League. Steven Gerrard and Neil Lennon can take credit for their part in earning this boost for the reputation of Scottish football but both must address pressing challenges on Thursday as Rangers meet Lech Poznan at home and Celtic travel to Lille.

Rangers seem to be in good shape for their tie, having beaten Standard Liege in Belgium to post their first group stage victory away from home since they beat Lyon 3-0 in the Champions League in 2007, and having gone six points ahead of Celtic in the Scottish Premiership when they beat Livingston 2-0 at Ibrox on Sunday. Both games featured delightfully executed strikes, with Kemar Roofe despatching Rangers’ second against Standard from inside his own half and Jermain Defoe doing likewise against Livi with a consummate volley for his 300th career goal from a James Tavernier cross which dropped over his shoulder.

Asked if the debonair execution of both goals testified to a rising tide of confidence within his squad, Gerrard responded with a litany of available strength in all departments. “There is definitely a belief amongst the boys. The training level is really intense at the moment,” he said.

“Everyone wants to play, which is great for me. Everyone is desperate to be involved. That normally brings out the best of form.

“The players that have got the shirt at the moment, or are playing more than others, realise that they need to stay in a good place and stay confident. They know there are people breathing down their neck in every position. You can see in the full-back position, the young lads are pushing extremely hard.

“We’ve got four strong centre-backs who are all capable of playing. We’ve got two good goalkeepers. We’ve now got the five options in midfield that we felt we needed.  And that’s not even putting Joe Aribo in that bracket. He’s capable of playing down the line as well.

“And the forward area is where we’ve got the most numbers. So, the message to the players is, when you’re picked, you have to deliver because, if you find yourself out of the team, it could be a long way back.”

The debate about the merits of their respective summer recruits will best be gauged against their performances over the course of a full campaign but Gerrard has the significant advantage of having far fewer fitness concerns than his Celtic counterpart. Covid-19 deprived Lennon of Ryan Christie, Odsonne Edouard, Nir Bitton and Hatem Elhamed after the international break, while long-term injuries have ruled out James Forrest, Christophe Jullien and Mikey Johnston for weeks to come.

Edouard and Bitton were at least able to travel to France on Wednesday, although neither can be sure of a start. Lille advertised their menace with a 4-1 victory over Slavia in Prague last week while Celtic lost 3-1 at home to AC Milan. “We’re playing against a team that I think are Champions League quality,” Lennon said.

"They have started the season really well in France and had a great win in Prague in the opening match, so it’s a real test for us. You can get at them in certain areas.

“We are going to need to be experienced as it’ll be tough playing away home, but if we can get a positive result, then it opens up the group again for us.

“We were disappointed with the result against AC Milan, but there is still plenty to play for.  My players should be enjoying this season and they are not really being allowed to enjoy it.”

One Celtic player who has felt the heat since he joined from Brighton during the summer is Shane Duffy. The central defender has made noteworthy errors in several games, including Sunday’s 3-3 draw at Aberdeen, but Lennon defended the Irishman. “He is a big strong boy,” he said.

"He is feeling it but he knows he’ll come through it. We just need to show him a bit of patience. He made a mistake at the weekend. The vitriol that comes after it is incredible, absolutely incredible.

“My job is to support him and that is exactly what I will do and I will support the other players as well. It isn’t the first time they have been thrown out into the lion’s den - no one more so than myself.

“I know exactly what he is going through. He has got the character and personality to bounce back straight away.”