British sides face Europa oblivion
© AFP

Celtic will need to pull off one of the best results in their recent history on Thursday if they are to progress to the knockout stages of the UEFA Europa League, where some of the continent's biggest names lie in wait.

Neil Lennon's side have to win away to Serie A high-fliers Udinese to qualify as runners-up in Group I by virtue of a superior head-to-head record against the Italian club. Doing that would open up the prospect of a last 32 clash with UEFA Champions League dropouts such as Manchester United, Manchester City or Valencia.

But Udinese are one of Europe's form teams just now, and the Scottish giants' record away from home in continental competition will give Hoops fans little cause for optimism.

Celtic's last win on the road in Europe came at Dinamo Moscow in the Champions League third qualifying round in July 2009, while before that they had not won on their travels since the 2003-2004 season, and there are plenty of memories of past disappointments on Italian soil.

However, manager Neil Lennon believes that a change in luck for his side is long overdue. "Our record away over the years hasn't been good and I'm told Scottish teams have only had one victory in Italy in 32 attempts," he admitted.

"We were unfortunate against AC Milan (in the Champions League last 16) in 2007 as a couple of contentious decisions went against us. We also played Milan in 2004 and at one each we were coasting to a draw and then conceded two late goals.

"So it's not as if the performances have been bad. We played well against Juventus too in 2001. We just didn't get the breaks we have needed.

"Udinese have a good mentality and boast quality players," Lennon added of Francesco Guidolin's team, who drew 1-1 in Glasgow in September and still have the incentive of beating already-qualified Atletico Madrid to first place if they win and the Spaniards lose at home to Rennes.

"I watched them against Inter Milan in the San Siro last week and they seemed to handle the pressure very well and ended up winning 1-0. They're up there near the top of the Italian table and are a Champions League quality team.

"The team we have now is young but that could work in our favour because they might have no fear. You never know, if we can play well on the night, we'll hopefully give them a real fright."

English trio on precipice
Of England's four representatives in the group stages, Stoke City are the only side already through. They can seal first place in Group E by taking a point away to Besiktas on Wednesday.

Elsewhere, Fulham come into Wednesday's final round of games in second place in Group K - a win for Martin Jol's men at home to Odense will guarantee them more European football in the New Year, while any slip up could let in Wisla Krakow, who are a point behind.

While qualification is in the Cottagers' hands, Championship club Birmingham City can only advance if they beat Maribor at St Andrews and Belgium's FC Brugge lose at home to Braga. Of course, Birmingham may not be too disappointed at exiting Europe, with a return to the Premier League their priority this season.

The same can be said of Tottenham Hotspur, who are on the brink of being knocked out in Group A. Spurs boss Harry Redknapp has made no attempt to hide that a top-four finish in the league is all that matters, and the Europa League has been used to give fringe players a run-out.

The two-time UEFA Cup winners will be out of the competition unless they beat pointless Shamrock Rovers in Dublin, and Rubin Kazan lose away to PAOK Salonika. Even then, Spurs would need to turn round a goal difference deficit which currently stands at five.

There are already 15 teams certain of featuring in Friday's draw for the next two rounds of the competition along with the eight clubs falling from the Champions League. Other big names in danger of an early exit include Lazio and Paris Saint-Germain.