Celtic gear up for Spanish test
Celtic striker Anthony Stokes believes that Wednesday’s Europa League game against Atletico Madrid represents a golden opportunity for the Hoops to show they’ve turned the corner after an indifferent start to the season.
The Glasgow side have won four straight matches in the Scottish Premier League to cut Rangers’ lead at the top from 12 to four points and in so doing have reignited their title aspirations.
But Neil Lennon’s side can ill-afford defeat against Atletico at Parkhead if they want to stay alive in Europe this season.
Celtic are third in Group I with five points from four matches — two fewer than both Atletico and Udinese — and a loss would spell the end of their European campaign should Udinese secure victory against Rennes in the group’s other match.
Stokes, who has 11 goals to his name this season, said: “It’s going to be a very tough game against a top-class side, but it’s a game we’re looking forward to.
“It’s the best team we’ll have played in a long, long time — it will be interesting to see what happens.” Atletico beat Celtic 2-0 in the reverse fixture at the Vicente Calderon in September, but the Spaniards’ have been a model of inconsistency this season and suffered a 4-1 defeat at the hands of cross-city rivals Real over the weekend.
On his team’s stuttering start to the campaign, Stokes said, “Early on in the season we had a bad spell. I think we’ve come out of that now and we’ve shown what we can really do.
“I think we’ve improved a little bit, we’ve tightened up at the back -we’re not conceding as many goals lately it doesn’t seem - and it’s paying dividends.
“We want to keep on this run, keep winning games and keep the momentum going,” the 23-year-old added.
Elsewhere, Stoke City could wrap up a place in the next phase of the competition with a point against Dynamo Kiev at the Britannia Stadium.
Republic of Ireland midfielder Glenn Whelan said: “The Dynamo Kiev game is a massive one for the players and the club because European nights like this certainly don’t come around too often.
“But the lads are buzzing now and the Blackburn win will give us the confidence to go into Thursday’s match and get the result that we need.” Tottenham Hotspur welcome Group A leaders PAOK Salonika to White Hart Lane, knowing that a victory would leave them requiring just one point from their final match to seal a berth in the last 32 of the competition.
Michael Dawson remains sidelined for Spurs, while Roman Pavlyuchenko and Giovani dos Santos are doubtful. However, dynamic Croatian midfielder Luka Modric could return after illness ruled him out of Sunday’s Premier League encounter against West Brom.
The other game in Group A sees Shamrock Rovers go to Rubin Kazan, with the defending League of Ireland champions still looking for their first point in the competition.
Meanwhile, Fulham — the tournament’s runners-up two years ago - face a tricky tie against Dutch side Twente, who have already qualified for the knockout stages.
The Cottagers’ fate will remain in their own hands regardless of the result on Thursday, but three points for Martin Jol’s men would see them advance from Group K.
Birmingham City are embracing their European adventure as they seek an immediate return to the Premier League, and the Blues are one of three teams on 7 points in Group H — along with Braga and Club Brugge.
Chris Hughton’s team face a pivotal clash against Braga in Portugal, where a positive result would put Birmingham in a strong position to qualify for the next round, with a home tie against Slovenian club Maribor their final fixture in the group.