BRENDAN Rodgers’s attempts to get the better of Roberto Mancini during their spells in charge of Swansea and Manchester City respectively in the Premier League in England were, while not completely futile, always complicated by the vastly superior resources his rival had at his disposal.
Both men have moved on since then, Rodgers to Liverpool and Celtic and Mancini to Inter Milan and Zenit St Petersburg, but not a huge amount has changed in the intervening period.
The Northern Irishman’s side will be doing very well to overcome the Italian’s team in the last 32 of the Europa League this month due to the yawning gulf in player budgets that exists between the Scottish champions and their Russia rivals.
Zenit may not be the sort of European superpower that Celtic have met in the Champions League group stages in the last couple of seasons. But they still operate at a far higher level financially than their opponents thanks to the backing of their owners Gazprom. The multinational energy provider has invested heavily since buying a controlling stake in 2005.
Some pundits and supporters have rather optimistically suggested the Glasgow club could enjoy an extended run in the lesser of the two European club competitions, but Rodgers, while not discounting their chances, appreciates that progressing will be every bit as demanding.
“Look at the teams that will be in it,” he said this week ahead to the first leg of the Zenit double header at Parkhead on Thursday evening. “Napoli and Borussia Dortmund are teams that would have been hoping and expecting to go a long way in the Champions League.
“Everyone wants to be in the Champions League, but the Europa League isn’t a competition you can turn your nose up at, it’s a really prestigious competition. The calibre of clubs and players is a really high level.
“I’ve seen some comments about possibly winning it and stuff. I’m a realist and we want to be competitive in it, that’s what is important, but there’s still a big gulf, that’s the reality. We have to somehow try and find a way to get through in these games over the two legs, but we understand it will be very difficult.”
Rodgers added: “I would think Zenit’s budget is considerably more than ours. They’re set up to go far in European competitions. They’ve got a nice, new stadium (the 56,067-capacity Krestovsky Stadium was built at a cost of $1 billion and opened this year). The finances, money there is huge.
“It’s a tough level. We have to try and find a way to get a result. We have to embrace that. It’s a huge test for us, these games at this level, but it’s a test we’re mindful of. There’s ways for us to improve as a team. I’ve always said these experiences will make us better—we’ve a lot of young players. Let’s see how far we can take it.”
The presence of Branislav Ivanovic, the Serbian internationalist who helped Chelsea reach the Champions Leaue final they won in 2012 and then lift the Europa League a year later, underlines the calibre of player Mancini has at his disposal at Zenit. “Branislav has gone back out there and is a real lynchpin for the team,” said Rodgers. “He has still got good legs and strength and power and experience.”
Zenit are currently on a warm weather training camp in Belek in Turkey where they have beaten Red Star Belgrade But the fact that their opponents haven’t played a competitive fixture in two months due to the extended winter shutdown in Russia may work to Celtic’s advantage. Having the home tie first may also help on this occasion.
“We have done everything we possibly can to monitor the games they have had in this period,” said Rodgers. “It is a bit like pre-season. We have had a member of stuff watching them in Turkey at the minute, watching some of their games out there.”
“It is great for us that we come out of this Christmas period and have this European game. This first leg will be important for us, at home with the crowd and everything else. You are hoping that you can come out of that with a good result to set up the second leg the following week.
“Listen, it’s not the worst to have the first leg at home. If you can keep a clean sheet then it gives you a real motivation going away.”