‘With all due respect to the competition, I’m not sure what it is,’ remarked Brendan Rodgers in December - when commenting on Leicester City’s impending involvement in the inaugural Europa Conference League.
UEFA’s new third-tier tournament has been derided in some quarters. It lacks the glamour and gravitas of the Champions League and the depth and quality of the Europa League, but the competition is delivering on its primary objective.
The tournament's raison d’etre is to provide clubs outside the big leagues with more opportunities to experience European competition - and teams from Austria, Azerbaijan, Czech Republic, Denmark, Norway, Scotland and Serbia will all compete this evening.
Over time, the Conference League could become a quirky alternative to its more high-profile and established counterparts. There is a lack of variety in the Champions League, the group stages are often monotonous, and UEFA’s new tournament could thrive on the unpredictability factor.
Celtic will be hoping their Conference League debut goes according to plan. The Premiership league-leaders welcome Bodø/Glimt to Glasgow, and Parkhead will be bustling ahead of the knockout round play-offs.
Bodø/Glimt generated global headlines by trouncing Roma 6-1 in October, but they are a weaker outfit than a few months ago. The Norwegians have sold four of their outstanding performers and are currently in pre-season mode, with their league campaign not due to start until the first weekend in April.
Ange Postecoglou has, to his credit, been bullish in his response to questions surrounding his side’s appetite for the Conference League. He is targeting a deep run - and the tournament provides the Glasgow giants with a chance to banish anguish from previous excursions abroad.
Martin O’Neill was the incumbent when Celtic last won a post-Christmas European knockout tie 18 years ago. His resilient team famously overcame Barcelona, but following David Marshall’s heroics in Spain, The Hoops have encountered February woe on seven occasions.
Celtic are unlikely to have a better chance to make headway at the business end of a European tournament. They are rampant domestically, overflowing with confidence and about to encounter under-cooked opposition.
Basel, Feyenoord, Leicester City, Marseille and PSV Eindhoven are amongst the teams remaining in the competition. Jose Mourinho’s charges are favourites to lift the trophy in Tirana, but Celtic will not be overawed by the prospect of encountering the majority of sides left.
The primary objective for Celtic is to recapture the league title and return to the lucrative Champions League group stages. They are in pole position to achieve championship glory, yet an extended European run would supplement, rather than hinder, their title bid.
Celtic were vibrant and free-scoring in the Europa League. They were relentless in the final third, but defensive mishaps led to their demise. Naive defending cost them dearly, and they conceded 15 goals in the group stages - more than any other team in the competition.
Postecoglou is not one to compromise when it comes to his philosophy. His expansive style has taken Celtic to the Premiership summit, but his unwavering approach can lead to difficulties on the road against high-calibre opposition.
A Scottish club has not won a European trophy since Aberdeen overcame Hamburg in the 1983 Super Cup. The Old Firm have come close to ending the drought, but the wait continues. When an opening emerges, as it could for Celtic this year, it is vital to embrace the possibility.
The Conference League was not on Celtic’s radar when they entered the qualifying stages of the Champions League in July, however they now have a third chance to make a big splash on the continent.
Celtic are expected to overcome Bodø/Glimt - and victory over the Norwegians should provide them with a platform to embark on a deep run.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change