Two clubs from outside the top five wealthy leagues reached the quarter finals last season but Benfica were drawn against another team from outside the big five, Zenit St Petersburg. Apoel Nicosia eliminated Lyon in the last 16 on penalties (we should be practicing penalties every week between now and then).
Two teams, Basel (who earlier eliminated Manchester United) and Bayer Leverkusen (who eliminated Valencia), lost seven goals in one game in the first knockout round last season. This tournament retains an ability to be harsh and unforgiving at every moment. Leverkusen actually conceded 10 to Barcelona over two games.
Apoel Nicosia conceded eight to Real Madrid in the quarters. The Cypriot team held things together for as long as they could but failed to reach group stage of the Europa League this season, going out at the hands of Neftchi Baku (Azerbaijan).
Our seven potential opponents, all from the top five leagues, will each present an enormously difficult challenge but some are easier than others. Our biggest advantage is our own position. Those seven clubs will each underestimate Celtic, we have by far the lowest coefficient of all teams left in the tournament.
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We are enormously outgunned and inexperienced at this level but we know a few things:
We can defend under incredible pressure.
We can score, home and away, against anyone.
We cannot retain possession. This is not a good thing, but it is an acknowledged weakness, so we know not to plan to retain possession. If in doubt, laces through the ball and get into position.
Our opponents will know we have the tallest team in the competition. Height is an advantage until your opponent learns how you use it. During the first half on Wednesday Celtic tried to repeat the corner kick success we enjoyed against Barcelona and Benfica but Spartak had read the script. We will be unlikely to score the same goal again in Europe. A fresh plan is needed.
The Spartak goal is a real lesson. This is not a goal we would have conceded against a far superior Barcelona. We had a 1-0 lead and our entire left flank was exposed, compromising a winning position. We can leave our left flank exposed at Kilmarnock tomorrow but this kind of laissez-faire defending came within 8 minutes of eliminating us on Wednesday and will do so in the next round if repeated.
Penalty kicks determined the outcome of 50% of Champions League knockout ties last season (20% after games, 30% during games). No amount of practice is too much.
Planning for the quarter finals starts now.
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