Neither one held mission impossible vibes but one stood out more than the other, and not just for historical reasons. Group E, containing Feyenoord, Atletico Madrid and Lazio, had a far better ring to it than Barcelona, Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk in Group H, the other option available to the Premiership champions. So when Eric Abidal held up the letter E to confirm Celtic’s date with Dutch, Spanish and Italian opposition, Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers would no doubt have been content with the outcome. This is the most navigable pool in the tournament.
Spare a thought for Celtic’s fellow pot-four dwellers in Newcastle United, who have landed PSG, Borussia Dortmund and AC Milan. That is proper group-of-death territory. All other British clubs have easier assignments. Manchester United landed Bayern Munich, Galatasaray and FC Copenhagen. Arsenal will slug it out with Sevilla, PSV Eindhoven and RC Lens, while Manchester City take on RB Leipzig, Red Star Belgrade and Young Boys.
Despite being second seeds, Atletico Madrid are undoubtedly the biggest name in Celtic’s group. They have reached the final three times, twice under current manager Diego Simeone, who has been at the helm since 2011. In his first season, Celtic drew them in the Europa League and lost home and away in the group stages as the Colchoneros went on to win the tournament. In fact, Atletico have never conceded a goal against Celtic, winning 2-0 and drawing 0-0 in their only other meeting, the 1973/74 European Cup semi-finals.
Last season was not a vintage campaign for Atletico despite finishing third in La Liga, but they started this one with a menacing 7-0 thrashing of Rayo Vallecano at the Wanda Metropolitano, their swanky new stadium in the Spanish capital. Look at their squad and the list of star names is big: Koke, Antoine Griezmann, Memphis Depay, Saul, Thomas Lemar, Cesar Azpilicueta, Jose Gimenez, Alvaro Morata and Joao Felix. There is an experienced, gnarled look to Simeone’s team, and they are rightly favourites to top Group E.
Celtic should respect but not be daunted, however, by Feyenoord and Lazio. The Eredivisie champions were clearly the most attractive pot one opposition. Managed by Arne Slot, who was strongly linked with the Tottenham vacancy before Spurs poached Ange Postecoglou from Parkhead, they won the Dutch league by seven points last season from PSV. This is their first foray into the group stages since the 2017/18 term, although they reached the quarter-finals of last season’s Europa League and were inaugural finalists of the Conference League two years ago, both times losing to Roma. They know their way around a European tie and rely on Mexican striker Santiago Gimenez to be their main goalscoring threat.
Celtic and Feyenoord met in the 1969/70 European Cup final, with the Dutch outfit overcoming Jock Stein’s men 2-1 at the San Siro after extra time. Tommy Gemmell put Celtic, warm favourites for the match, ahead before Rinus Israel levelled and then Ove Kindvall netted a winner in 117 minutes after a mistake by Billy McNeill. The two have not met since
Lazio, managed by wily Italian Maurizio Sarri, were distant runners-up in Serie A to Napoli in a successful season for the Rome-based outfit. Their star men include Felipe Anderson, Ciro Immobile, Daichi Kamada and Matias Vecino. Celtic have warm memories of their last clash with the Biancocelesti, defeating them 2-1 both home and away in the 2019/20 Europa League group stages, with Olivier Ntcham’s winner at the Stadio Olimpico living long in the memory.
There is no such thing as an easy Champions League draw, but Celtic will have reason to be quietly confident of making a better fist of this campaign than last, when they posted two points from matches against Real Madrid, Leipzig and Shakhtar Donetsk.