Celtic seek Europa tonic
Celtic manager Neil Lennon will welcome the chance to step out of the domestic pressure-cooker on Thursday as the Scottish Premier League side head to France to face Rennes in the UEFA Europa League.
Lennon's future appeared to be at serious risk halfway through Saturday's SPL game against Kilmarnock with the Hoops trailing 3-0. However, a rousing second-half fightback earned them a 3-3 draw, and that result coupled with a draw for Rangers kept Celtic within ten points of their bitter rivals with a game in hand, and probably just kept Lennon in a job, for now.
Now Celtic head to Brittany looking for their first win in Group I against Rennes who, like them, have also managed just one point from two group games. The Breton side have been beaten just once in their last seven domestic matches, though, and their in-form attack - in which Burkina Faso winger Jonathan Pitroipa is the star attraction - will fancy their chances against a porous Celtic defence.
"After ten games it's not easy, we lost three or four games but I think we can come back in a good way," said Celtic's Israeli international midfielder Beram Kayal of his team's domestic ills. "What is important is about the winning the next game. We have a lot of games left in the season but we must just focus on the next game."
Former winners Atletico Madrid and Serie A's Udinese - both with four points from two games - meet in Italy in the other Group I game.
Spurs vie for top spot
Elsewhere, Tottenham Hotspur and Rubin Kazan contest the supremacy of Group A at White Hart Lane. Spurs manager Harry Redknapp is likely to again give fringe players a chance in this competition, although his options are limited in defence, where Ledley King, Michael Dawson and William Gallas are all injured.
Group A's other game sees Shamrock Rovers go to PAOK Salonika, with both teams still looking for a first win. Shamrock gave Tottenham a scare in their last European outing in London, but the long trip, and the hostile atmosphere that awaits them in Greece, may do little other than damage their chances of retaining the League of Ireland crown as their domestic season reaches its climax.
Stoke City can take a big step towards qualifying for the next stage if they can beat Maccabi Tel-Aviv of Israel, while Fulham can do likewise with a win away to Wisla Krakow in Poland.
For Birmingham City, the Europa League would appear to be little more than a nuisance as they try to win an immediate return to the Premier League. But the Blues' supporters are still determined to enjoy their Group H campaign, and as many as 10,000 are expected to travel to Belgium for the clash with a Club Brugge side unbeaten in their domestic league and with two wins out of two in the group so far.
"I think once it comes around it's an enjoyable experience and the players raise their games for that, or should I say raise their enthusiasm," Birmingham manager Chris Hughton said of his side's European campaign. "When you see it all written down, with all the fixtures, you think you don't really need it.
"But as soon as it comes to it, and once we get out in Bruges and see the supporters there, then you'll want to win that game every bit as much as you want to win a big league game."