Europa League: Can Celtic again use Suduva as a springboard to success?

Henrik Larsson scored three when Suduva were last at Celtic Park
Henrik Larsson scored three goals in an 8-1 win when Suduva last visited Celtic Park
Europa League qualifying play-off: Suduva v Celtic
Venue: ARVI Football Arena, Suduva Date: Thursday, 23 August Kick-off: 18:00 BST
Coverage: Listen live on Radio Scotland & online; text commentary on BBC Sport website & app

As consolation prizes go, the one bestowed upon Celtic last week can be viewed two ways.

The overwhelming disappointment felt in the immediate aftermath of Brendan Rodgers' worst week in charge of the club, culminating with their Champions League exit, will rankle throughout the season.

Despite the lack of victories and recent harsh lessons dished out by the best Europe has to offer, the absence of razzmatazz from the competition will leave a huge chasm in the Scottish champions' campaign.

The third qualifying round defeat at the hands of AEK in ancient Athens was a huge blow. But there is always hope amid setbacks and this time it lies in the shape of the Europa League.

The tournament formerly known as the Uefa Cup has provided solace for Scottish clubs in the past and Celtic are no exception as they prepare for a play-off against FK Suduva.

The Lithuanian club's name will immediately pique interest among clued-up Celtic supporters.

In August 2002, there was similar dismay as Martin O'Neill's side were ejected from the Champions League qualifiers by Basle.

As competition exits go, that one was more brutal than this season's as a 3-1 first leg advantage was relinquished when they visited Switzerland.

With petted lips and bowed heads all around, Celtic were paired with the aforementioned FK Suduva having been parachuted into the Uefa Cup first round.

The adventure that followed culminated with 80,000 Celtic supporters making their way to the Andalusian city of Seville for the final against Jose Mourinho's Porto.

Celtic lost the 2003 Uefa Cup final to Porto after beating Suduva in the first round
Celtic lost the 2003 Uefa Cup final to Porto after beating Suduva in the first round

The likes of Stuttgart and Liverpool were beaten as O'Neill came so close to emulating Jock Stein in winning a European trophy for the club.

At the start of that journey, Suduva were brutally cast aside 10-1 on aggregate, with Henrik Larsson grabbing a hat-trick in an 8-1 first-leg rout. It remains the last European treble scored by a Celtic player.

The Lithuanians will likely provide a sterner test this time as they continue to bask in their first championship.

Pipping Zalgiris of Vilnius to the title, they are threatening a new era in Lithuanian football as they continue a hitherto successful title defence, 20 games into the 2018 season.

Zalgiris have been the main beneficiaries of the Vladimir Romanov-Ukio Bankas financial implosion that almost wiped out Hearts. It did wipe out FBK Kaunas, the club synonymous with the Tynecastle side's endless player loans a decade ago, who also knocked Rangers out of the Champions League qualifiers in 2008.

Kaunas and Zalgiris were the dominant forces in Lithuanian football. Only one remains and Suduva are now making hay.

The club's head coach Vladimir Cheburin has lofty ambitions, no doubt emboldened by that maiden title victory almost a year ago.

The Kazakh has gone on record to say he is confident they can overcome Celtic and make history by becoming the first Lithuanian side to reach the group stage of a Uefa competition.

Cheburin has every right to hold such lofty expectations and not just because his team is currently ruling the roost in the Baltic country.

And this is where Celtic must proceed with caution.

'This is a dream for all footballers'

Suduva shocked APOEL Nicosia in the first Champions League qualifying round with a 3-2 aggregate victory, winning 3-1 at home.

That achievement is all the more impressive given - like Celtic - the Cypriot champions competed in the group stage of the elite competition last season.

That feather-in-the-cap victory came less than a year after the Lithuanians did the same to Swiss side Sion before eventually succumbing to Bulgarian outfit Ludogorets in the Europa play-off.

Lorenzo Ebecilio of Red Star Belgrade challenges Gerson Acevedo of Suduva in their Champions league qualifier
Chilean midfielder Gerson Acevedo (right) poses a threat for Suduva

Celtic are clear favourites, but Suduva have strengths with Chilean cap Gerson Acevedo and Lithuania international and top scorer Ovidijus Verbickas a threat from midfield.

However, with success comes suitors and they have lost two strikers this summer in the shape of Croatian Josip Tadic, who has moved to Hong Kong having had a goal-every-other-game record, and Karolis Laukzemis, who left for Croatia, having been top scorer last season.

After defeating Latvia's Spartans Jurmala 1-0 on aggregate in the previous round, Croatian defender Andro Svrljuga said: "This is a dream for all footballers who so often do not meet the big clubs.

"We will do it as a prize for what we did this year and last year. Celtic, Celtic Park Stadium, it's incredible."

It may be mere consolation for Celtic, but with possible group matches against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Sevilla and AC Milan, the razzmatazz could yet return this season.

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