Free-scoring Zenit can humble Bhoys

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The Europa League returns this week and 32 teams are still competing for European football’s secondary prize.

The beauty of the Europa League is that it is entirely unpredictable at times, often producing a much more free-flowing brand of football, with open and entertaining games.

That is in stark contrast to the knockout stages of the Champions League, increasingly a battleground defined by the ability to survive without making mistakes.

Brendan Rodgers and Celtic made no secret of their aim in Europe this season – namely to prolong their interest beyond the turn of the year – and a vital away win in Belgium against Anderlecht in September – the only game from six in the Champions League where the Scottish champions avoided defeat – achieved that aim.

The Hoops parachute into the Europa League seeking to break an 11-game winless streak in this competition but they’ve drawn a tough nut in Zenit St Petersburg.

The Russians were leading scorers in the group stages, with 17 goals in six games. Notwithstanding that Zenit emerge from their winter break for the trip to Glasgow, their class in the final third could be a bit problem for a Celtic defence that is not reliable at European level.

The visitors are 33/20 to win and that is a fair price, with Parkhead not quite the European fortress of the early 2000s.

The danger in the Europa League match betting is often trying to account for team selection and where this competition sits in the pecking order for the clubs involved.

Celtic and Zenit are two clubs likely to have it front and centre whereas Napoli may see the Europa League as secondary given their ambitions of Serie A glory this term.

They were bitterly disappointing in the Champions League but their vast attacking talent would make them a danger to all here. Chasing a first Italian title in 28 years may take precedence, however.

They welcome Bundesliga outfit Leipzig for their first leg and the Germans can take advantage of a potential reshuffle from Napoli by going home with a draw at 51/20.

Atalanta travel to Germany in another Bundesliga/Serie A showdown as they face Borussia Dortmund at the Westfalenstadion.

Dortmund found themselves handed the thankless task of facing Real Madrid and Tottenham in the Champions League while Atalanta were unbeaten in six games as they topped a Europa League group ahead of a limited Lyon side and an Everton team in disarray at times.

The German side have lost Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the January window although they did pick up Michy Batshuayi from Chelsea to compensate. This is another tough tie to call but, on home soil and with more European experience, the home side can edge the first leg at 10/13.

After losing to Tottenham at the weekend, a beleaguered Arsenal will take on Swedish outfit Oestersunds on Europa League duty. Their opponents came into existence in the same year Arsene Wenger became manager of the Gunners.

Champions League football looks a forlorn hope for Arsenal next season, based on their Premier League form, so they’ll be eager to try and emulate Manchester United by winning this competition instead.

Oestersunds have been on their winter break and that might cost them dearly now, with Arsenal expected to justify odds-on 20/43 by getting a win on the road.

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