Zenit St Petersburg's strength poses Europa League threat to Celtic

Zenit St Petersburg players celebrate
Zenit St Petersburg topped their Europa League group following five wins and a draw

It is exactly five years since Brendan Rodgers last attempted to get the better of Zenit St Petersburg.

Having scraped through their Europa League group, Rodgers' Liverpool were sent to the Baltic port city.

And despite possessing the star-studded firepower of Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez, it was Zenit who prevailed over the two legs of a keenly contested last-32 tie.

Now, half a decade on, Rodgers leads his Celtic team into the same battle.

With a World Cup they are hosting very much on the horizon, Russian football followers are desperate for a shot in the arm and with Zenit one of four sides from the nation in the competition, they will hope at least one will make the latter stages.

The 33/1 odds for this Zenit side to win the tournament tell you just how strong the Europa League is and as Rodgers himself points out, it is of Champions League standard with the likes of Atletico Madrid, Napoli, Milan, Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund all lurking.

How far can Celtic go? Well, to improve upon the last 32 could require their two best European performances in years.

Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard against Zenit
Steven Gerrard was a member of the Liverpool side managed by Brendan Rodgers that was knocked out of European competition by Zenit in 2013

Zenit may not possess the star names of the past, such as Rangers' Uefa Cup final conquerors Anatoly Tymoshchuk and Andrey Arshavin, or more recent heroes Hulk, Danny or Axel Witsel, but there is enough in the current Zenit squad to suggest they are better than the likes of Anderlecht and Borussia Monchengladbach who Celtic faced in recent Champions League campaigns.

Manager Roberto Mancini has already voiced his desire to blood new Russian talent in his first team.

The Italian - whose Internazionale side ejected Celtic from the competition at this stage three years' ago - has also lamented the Thursday/Sunday schedule his side has faced due to their Europa League participation.

He lists that as the main reason they trail Russian Premier League leaders Lokomotiv Moscow by eight points.

Zenit defender Branislav Ivanovic
Zenit defender Branislav Ivanovic is likely to miss the Celtic ties due to injury

But they impressively came through their Europa League section unbeaten, with the biggest points tally and most goals in the group stage, finishing ahead of Real Sociedad, Rosenberg and Macedonian champions Vardar.

A timely boost for Celtic, and perhaps Moussa Dembele in particular, is the likely absence of key defender Branislav Ivanovic.

The Chelsea legend requires little introduction, having signed a year ago after a silver-laden nine years at Stamford Bridge, the Serbia international may be 33 now, but he is still an imposing presence at the back.

However, he is injured and unlikely to feature in either leg of the tie. Other Zenit players, though, pose a threat to Celtic.

Zenit striker Aleksandr Kokorin
Aleksandr Kokorin has scored 15 goals for Zenit this season

Aleksandr Kokorin

Not only one of Zenit's great hopes, but Kokorin could be faced with the kind of pressure which sat on Neymar's shoulders at the last World Cup finals.

While Russia's aspirations at the tournament they are hosting will be modest by comparison to those of Brazil in 2014, Kokorin is the man they will look to for goals in a group featuring Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay.

Before that, the 26-year-old will seek to repeat a trick first performed as a teenager in 2009, when his goal saw Dinamo Moscow emerge victorious from Celtic Park in a Champions League qualifier in what was Tony Mowbray's first competitive game as Parkhead boss.

Celtic fought back to win 2-0 in the Russian capital in what was the most impressive result of Mowbray's short incumbency.

Zenit midfielder Leandro Parades
Zenit midfielder Leandro Parades was linked with a move to Real Madrid in January

Leandro Parades

The Argentina international was being linked with a move to Real Madrid during the winter transfer window and there is little doubt he is a player who could come to prominence at the World Cup if he can break into Jorge Sampaoli's starting 11.

The 23-year-old's signature represented a coup for Mancini when he lured him to Saint Petersburg from Roma last summer, but his stay in Russia could be a short one if a summer bid from Los Blancos materialises.

The South American is well versed in European football, having originally arrived in Italy with Chievo in 2014 from Boca Juniors.

Mancini wants to utilise Parades further up the park and he is likely to be a key player for Zenit against the Scottish champions.

Zenit winger Emiliano Rigoni
Zenit winger Emiliano Rigoni recently earned his first cap for Argentina

Emiliano Rigoni

Another Argentine who has started making a name for himself. Indeed, Rigoni and Parades are just two of a collective of Argentinians who are integral parts of Mancini's squad.

Former Atletico Madrid midfielder Matias Kranevitter, forward Sebastian Driussi and defender Emanuel Mammana are all likely to face Celtic at some juncture over the two legs.

But Rigoni may require extra attention given he is joint-top scorer in the competition so far with six goals, including a hat-trick against Rosenborg.

Unlike some of his Zenit compatriots, Rigoni has just arrived in Europe after spells with Belgrano and Independiente in his homeland.

The 25-year-old right winger collected his first cap during a crucial World Cup qualifier with Peru in Buenos Aires last autumn as Argentina stumbled over the qualification finish-line.

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