By Jamie Greer
These often-maligned European competitions can still offer some cracking games when it comes to the knockout fixtures, as teams that finished 3rd in their Champions League group come to play with unknown underdogs and rising powers. Here are three key fixtures to look out for.
Leicester v Randers FC (Europa Conference League)
Last season’s FA Cup winners are not having a good time this season. 11th in the league and knocked out of all other cups, a competition which manager Brendan Rodgers admitted he didn’t know anything about, is their last hope of silverware. Dogged by injuries and questions of players attitudes, the Conference League offers some hope of redemption to the Foxes’ season. They showed sings of improvement in a 2-2 draw with West Ham at the weekend. Youri Tielemans and Harvey Barnes in particular displayed exhibited the clear ability they possess but have not shown enough this season.
Danish side Randers squeezed through their group with just 1 win and 4 draws. Furthermore, they sit 5th in the Danish Superliga and have only played friendlies of late as the league is currently on a winter break. However, they did push Turkish giant Galatasaray close in the Europa League players earlier this year.
Prediction: Leicester 3-0 Randers FC
Despite Leicester’s disappointing form this season and Rodger’s poor record in Europe, they remain clear favourites in this tie, especially as the first leg is at the King Power Stadium. With nothing else to play for, the Europa Conference League is the best chance Rodgers – and some of this squad – have of regaining some credibility during a turgid campaign.
Borussia Dortmund v Rangers (Europa League)
Dortmund, perennial runners up in the Bundesliga, unexpectedly crashed out of the Champions League in December. Out of the German Cup and likely without their star striker Erling Haaland, their season is in danger of becoming truly underwhelming. They are still 2nd in the Bundesliga though and have a good mix of youth (Jude Bellingham, Donny Mallen) and experience (Mats Hummels, Marco Reus) which means they cannot be ruled out of a charge towards the Europa League title.
Scottish Champions Rangers have undergone a turbulent season, losing their manager Steven Gerrard in the autumn and slipping behind Celtic in the SPFL. Rangers’ European form was built on Gerrard’s tactical acumen, but new coach Giovanni Christiaan van Bronckhorst has some experience at his level thanks to his tenure at Feyenoord. Lively forward Alfredo Morelos remains their most dangerous threat.
Prediction: Borussia Dortmund 3-0 Rangers
Dortmund, despite a disappointing campaign, still operate at a far higher level than Rangers and should take advantage of their superior players and famous ‘Yellow Wall’ at Signal Iduna Park.
Celtic v Bodo/Glimt (Europa Conference League)
Celtic are in resurgent form after losing their Scottish crown last season. Despite doubts over Ange Postecolgu’s methods earlier in the campaign, since November they have not lost a single game and recently went top of the SPFL with a dominant 3-0 victory over Rangers. Their contingent of Japanese players in particular have greatly impressed this season, along with goalkeeper Joe Hart enjoying a new lease of life up in Glasgow. Despite this, they continually disappoint in European campaigns.
Norwegian champions Bodo/Glimt, like Randers, are not playing league football at the moment, with their domestic season due to resume this April. They remain unbeaten in the Conference League, with striker Erik Botheim leading the line with 14 goals.
Prediction: Celtic 2-1 Bodo/Glimit
It should be straightforward for Celtic against a team lacking match fitness. However, recent history have shown that the Bhoys never make it easy for themselves in Europe. An electric atmosphere at Celtic Park should be enough to carry them to victory.