Champions League: Celtic back 'where we belong'

Celtic's Emilio Izaguirre and Barcelona's Lionel Messi
Celtic and Barcelona played one another during pre-season

Celtic felt their absence from the group stage of the Champions League like a loss, as if an essential part of their identity was missing.

And, after the group-stage draw in Monaco, chief executive Peter Lawwell remarked: "We're back where we belong."

The Scottish champions had been drawn in Group C, alongside Barcelona, Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach.

In terms of history and even stature - the 60,000 home crowds, the club's global appeal through the Scottish and Irish diaspora - Celtic can feel a sense of belonging.

City and Gladbach have never won the European Cup after all. Yet, by other measures, Celtic face a stark competitive challenge in Group C, a reminder that money and status take little heed of tradition.

The old foes

Celtic and Barcelona have played so often in recent years the fixture somehow seems commonplace. This will be their third set of European ties in four years - and their fifth since 2004.

In all, the two clubs have met 12 times in European competition, with the Spaniards having won seven and Celtic only two. Neil Lennon's side memorably earned a hard-fought and dramatic 2-1 victory at Celtic Park in 2012, which at least provides some small vestige of hope.

There were some major players for Celtic that night - Fraser Forster, Kris Commons, Joe Ledley, Victor Wanyama - but the starting line-up also contained Efe Ambrose in defence and Miku in attack. Even so, Celtic are still more of a work in progress now under Brendan Rodgers, because he has only been manager for a matter of months.

Pep Guardiola
Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola will come up against former employers Barcelona

Barcelona continue to combine a thrilling sense of style with a hard-edged ruthlessness.

They won La Liga by a single point from Real Madrid last season, with Atletico Madrid a further two behind. As if any emphasis was needed of the scale of that achievement, the latter two sides contested the Champions League final.

Since then, Barcelona have signed midfielder Andre Gomes from Valencia, Samuel Umtiti, the centre-back who played in the European Championship final for France, from Lyon, left-back Lucas Digne from Paris St-Germain, Netherlands international goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen from Ajax and Denis Suarez, the Villarreal midfielder.

In total, they have spent almost £79m, while Celtic have so far signed three players for less than £5m.

The budding relationship

Celtic have developed strong working ties with Manchester City. At executive and coaching level, there is a sense of collaboration between the two clubs.

The Scottish champions loaned Jason Denayer from City two seasons ago, then John Guidetti and now Patrick Roberts, who will be free to play against his parent club, as well as signing Dedryck Boyata.

Those connections, and the fact Celtic defender Kolo Toure may face his younger brother Yaya for the first time in European competition, are a small if diverting sub-plot, though.

Kolo and Yaya Toure
Brothers Kolo and Yaya Toure could play each other when Celtic meet Manchester City

In City, they are facing the latest project of Pep Guardiola, a manager so consumed with his work and its details that he watched three videos of St Johnstone before playing them in a pre-season closed-door friendly during the summer.

There is almost a casual air to City's financial power. They spent more on John Stones, the 22-year-old Everton defender (£47.26m), and Leroy Sane, the 20-year-old Schalke attacker (£42.5m), combined than Barcelona's entire summer recruitment.

A total of £180m has been spent reshaping the squad for Guardiola, who is implementing many of the tactical ploys he refined at Bayern Munich, with his wide attackers playing like wingers and his full-backs moving upfield and inside to supplement the midfield.

It may take time for Guardiola's work to be fully integrated, but with the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Nolito capable of winning interventions of their own, City can still be devastating during their development.

The newcomers

Celtic have never faced Borussia Monchengladbach before. In comparative terms, the German side is weaker than Barcelona and Manchester City, but this is their second successive appearance in the Champions League group stage.

On their way to finishing fourth in the Bundesliga, they defeated Bayern Munich at home and drew 1-1 in Munich. They finished bottom of their Champions League group last season, but it contained Manchester City, Juventus and Sevilla - and they still defeated the Spaniards once and drew twice with Juventus.

Thorgan Hazard
Thorgan Hazard, brother of Chelsea's Eden, plays for Borussia Monchengladbach

The squad is weaker than last season following Havard Nordtveit's departure to West Ham United and Granit Xhaka's move to Arsenal, but they can still call upon Thorgan Hazard, the brother of Chelsea's Eden, Germany international midfielder Christoph Kramer and Brazilian striker Raffael, who scored 13 Bundesliga goals last season.

There are still funds to strengthen a squad that won more Bundesliga games than all but three sides last season - and scoring more Bundesliga goals than all the teams other than Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.

For Celtic, the return to the very heart of the elite is exhilarating but also daunting.

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