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Stephen Craigan: Rangers and Celtic are set for toughest Euro tests

Leading way: Celtic's Kristoffer Ajer will be kept busy by Lucas Leiva of Lazio in their Europa League clash this week
Leading way: Celtic's Kristoffer Ajer will be kept busy by Lucas Leiva of Lazio in their Europa League clash this week
While I believe Steven Davis will be key for Rangers in Porto
Stephen Craigan

By Stephen Craigan

With international football set aside for the next few weeks, the excitement of the Europa League returns on Thursday night as both Celtic and Rangers take on arguably the most difficult opponents in their respective groups.

Celtic host Lazio while Rangers head to Portugal to play Porto.

Although Celtic have dropped some domestic points recently, Neil Lennon will take great heart and confidence from his team's opening two games in the Europa League ahead of Lazio.

A really mature and controlled performance in Rennes to get a 1-1 draw was followed by a more swashbuckling 2-0 win against Cluj at Celtic Park.

And it is that display in particular against Cluj that will give Lennon and his players belief that they can topple Lazio.

The Italians were probably slight favourites to top the group at the outset, but Celtic know that if they can get the better of them on Thursday it puts them in pole position in the standings.

The one thing you are guaranteed on a European night under the lights at Celtic Park is an incredible atmosphere, which tends to lift the players' level of performance on the pitch.

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This will need to be the case again as Lazio have a couple of star players who Celtic will be well aware of.

The much-travelled Ciro Immobile is in fine form with nine goals in his 10 matches for club and country this season, so will be a threat.

This will be a step up in class for Christopher Jullien and Kristoffer Ajer but one I'm sure they will relish. You always want to test yourself against the best and Immobile falls into that category on current form.

British football fans will know all about Lucas Leiva from his time at Liverpool. The battle between him and Scott Brown in the middle of the pitch will be pivotal towards deciding the outcome of the game.

As for Rangers, after the disappointment of losing late to Young Boys in their second group game, Steven Gerrard will be emphasising the importance of bringing something back from Porto in terms of points. He will hope they can learn from that negative experience ahead of their trip to Portugal.

As with Celtic's group, Porto are the big hitters, if you like, and most automatically assumed they would be the stand-out team.

That hasn't proved to be the case so far, with each team in the group registering one win and one defeat ahead of match day three.

Gerrard will be looking for his side to have the same vigour and energy in their play as they did against Feyenoord when they won at Ibrox. I know that was a home game but there's no reason why they can't replicate it.

They will have to be brave in possession for starters. This will be key because if they approach the game and sit deep hoping not to lose, inevitably that will be the case.

They have to take part in the game and this is where Steven Davis and Ryan Jack are crucial.

Rangers also have to be aggressive and press in numbers high up the pitch when possible, take the game to Porto and see if they can handle the intensity. Admittedly, you can't do that for 90 minutes but, when it's on to press, don't disappoint them.

Domestically, Rangers are in a good place, but this will be their toughest test this season as Gerrard looks to improve on last season's Europa League exit at the group stages.

So it's all set up for both sides to make a real impression within their respective group. Both are more than capable of getting positive results on Thursday night.

Let's hope that's the case and show that Scottish football is still alive and kicking and outsiders can sit up and take notice.

Magnificent McNair has come to the fore, so dismiss NI's Euro finals hopes at your peril

The disappointment of losing late on in Rotterdam was blown away inside 45 minutes as Northern Ireland produced a scintillating first-half performance to lead 3-0 in Prague.

I know it may be scant consolation to some, as defeat to the Netherlands will still be raw, but there were so many encouraging signs to come out of our friendly over the Czech Republic victory on Monday night.

The growth of Paddy McNair in the last 12 months has been terrific; he's made himself an automatic pick alongside captain Steven Davis in midfield.

Also the way we defended late on showed we do have the character and determination to get games over the line.

If, as people are predicting, we have a very good chance of making the play-offs for Euro 2020 then winning away from home against good sides is a vital habit to get into.

Potentially we would have to qualify the hard way with two games away from Windsor Park, so positive experiences help mentally with that challenge.

It may be the long route to get to the Euros, but with this Northern Ireland squad nothing seems impossible, and their ability to respond from setbacks is admirable.

We all know that if anyone can, Northern Ireland can!

Belfast Telegraph


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