Celtic swap their domestic challenges for the prestige and glamour of the Champions League on Tuesday night when they begin their group stage campaign against Feyenoord.
Brendan Rodgers and his players have had to wait for their first taste of European action while other Scottish sides have battled with continental opposition but the spotlight is now on the Premiership champions and the elite competition.
Last month’s draw pitted Celtic against Feyenoord, Atletico Madrid and Lazio, with a trip to play the Dutch champions as the first test that awaits them.
The sides haven’t met in a competitive match since the 1970 European Cup final, when Tommy Gemmell put Celtic ahead before Rinus Israel and Ove Kindvall scored to give Feyenoord their first continental trophy.
With the competition now dominated by the super-rich sides from the top five leagues, and no longer exclusively for champions, neither are among the favourites to reach the final this time around but three points in the opening game would be a vital boost to either team’s hopes of reaching the knockout stages.
While Celtic reached the group stage after Ange Postecoglou led the team to a second consecutive title and part of a domestic treble, Feyenoord were top of the pile in the Netherlands.
A distant third in the league the previous year, Feyenoord leapfrogged their traditional rivals to win the league in style. They finished 13 points ahead of third-placed Ajax and seven ahead of PSV after an impressive campaign.
The only defeats came away at PSV in a 4-3 loss, and at home to Vitesse in the final game of the season with the trophy already secured.
A KNVB Cup run ended in defeat to Ajax in the semi-final but there was also progress in Europe.
Feyenoord finished top of their group, though only on goal scored after a remarkable round of games that saw them tied with Midtjylland, Lazio and Sturm Graz on eight points. After making it to the knockouts, Shakhtar Donetsk were dismissed with an 8-2 aggregate score before Roma ran out 4-2 winners at the quarter-final stage.
Who is in charge?
In the dugout is 44-year-old former midfielder Arne Slot, who has built a strong reputation in only a short time as manager.
Promoted from assistant to manager at AZ in 2019, Slot delivered a club record points-per-game and quickly caught the eye of Feyenoord. Unfortunately, AZ learned that the Rotterdam club had already begun talking to Slot about becoming successor to Dick Advocaat and promptly sacked him.
Slot took up his new position at De Kuip in the summer of 2021 and quickly set about revamping the squad and introducing his own ideas.
A third-placed finish behind Ajax and PSV in the first season showed promise but it was in Europe that Slot’s Feyenoord caught the eye. A thrilling run to the final ended in the disappointment of a 1-0 defeat to Roma but goal-laden knockout wins over Partizan Belgrade (8-3 on aggregate), Slavia Prague (6-4) and Marseille (3-2) made for an exciting campaign.
The second season brought a convincing and impressive Eredivisie title win, and in Europe the run to the Europa quarter-finals showed their philosophy of getting on the front foot could still deliver. 23 goals scored and 13 conceded in ten games tells its own story.
Slot is well-known for a high-energy, foot-to-the-floor approach with a high press and a belief that fitness and hard work can help even against better equipped opponents. There are echoes of the “We never stop” attitude from former Celtic boss Ange Postecoglou in a lot of what’s written about Slot’s team.
The Dutchman was linked with the vacancy at Spurs early in the summer before Postecoglou departed Glasgow to take charge of the London club.
Rotterdam Young Team
It’s no surprise that a team with a demanding, fast-paced approach isn’t built on creaking veterans getting by on their experience and Feyenoord under Slot are a youthful side.
The first team squad has the cosmopolitan make-up you would find at any big club these days but the profile of player is heavily skewed towards developing talent.
Of the 23 outfield players in the first team squad, only three are over the age of 25 and only seven are older than 23. The squad isn’t packed with household names but there are plenty who are on their way to wider recognition.
Versatile right-back Lutsharel Geertruida has played for every Netherlands side from Under-14 through to the senior side and has four full international caps now. Centre-back David Hancko is an established part of Slovakia’s defence and counts Fiorentina and Sparta Prague in his former clubs.
Defensive midfielder Mats Wieffer started his career at Twente but was at Excelsior until 2022. The 23-year–old got his first cap for Netherlands in March against France and has added three more since.
In attack, there’s one clear star man. Mexican international forward Santiago Gimenez has five goals from four league games this season, 28 in 50 overall and has found the net against Lazio (three times), Sturm Graz and Shakhtar Donetsk. The good news for Celtic? A red card against Roma means he is suspended this week and replacement Ayase Ueda has been injured and Slot says he isn’t fit to start..
Dangerous but not unbeatable
After a season to remember last time, this one started poorly with a 1-0 defeat to PSV in the Johan Cruyff Cup.
The Eredivisie defence then began with a 0-0 home stalemate with Fortuna Sittard and that disappointment was followed by 2-2 derby draw at local rivals Sparta Rotterdam when a point was earned with a late, late goal from Leo Sauer.
Form quickly turned. Almere City travelled to De Kuip at the end of last month and were on the receiving end of a 6-1 thumping, and that was followed with a 5-1 victory away at Utrecht, with eight different players scoring across those two fixtures.
The final match before facing Celtic was Saturday’s home match against Heerenveen. Feyenoord emphasised that they were back in the groove with a thumping 6-1 win, six different scorers underlining the threats that Celtic will face on Tuesday.
Warning for Celtic
Speaking to Algemeen Dagblad after the game, Arne Slot was in confident mood, saying his side’s performances weren’t the issue early in the season, and that it was inevitable their football would produce plenty of goals.
“If you have the better players, and you know how to build up so well, and find the free man, then it is very difficult for the opponent to get into the match,” Slot said.
“We had a difficult start to the competition in terms of results, but not in terms of football. The football was already good, so it was a matter of time before we turned that into goals and wins.”