Scotland has all four of its Europa League contenders in action on the road tonight in the third qualifying round and the significance of their endeavours to the game north of the border cannot be underestimated.
The provision of two domestic fixtures as test events for the admission of spectators nourished frail shoots of optimism which have been crushed by the imposition of new lockdown rules.
The Europa League offers the prospect of an alternative income source for Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen and Motherwell, none of whom are immune from fear of the possible consequences of the pandemic.
“It’s a very dangerous precipice we’re standing on and Celtic and a lot of clubs in Scotland aren’t immune to that. It is a very worrying situation,” Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, said.
His immediate task is to steer his men past Riga and even Lennon – who reached the Uefa Cup final as a Celtic player and supervised a famous victory over Barcelona as manager – has found the circumstances challenging.
“They are restricted to their hotel, so that is something we have not been used to,” Lennon said of his squad. “You are not sure really what you are going into and it is very strict. We were tested again this morning [Wednesday] and that was our second test of the week.
“We can’t leave the hotel and can only go to the ground for training and then for the game. There was a team meeting this afternoon, where we went through things and analysed the opposition and the option was there to train a little bit longer, just to keep them active.
“We were thinking about having a quiz just for a bit of fun. But the hotel has good facilities and it’s not been too bad – it’s just being confined indoors which is something that is a bit for new for them.”
Odsonne Edouard has been the subject of speculation, having looked below-par and kept on the bench during Saturday’s 3-2 home victory over Livingston.
“He missed a couple of games, came back in and three games in a week might have been too much for him,” Lennon said. “We made the right decision. He’s fresh and it sets us up nicely. If we can negotiate this, it’s Hibs at the weekend, then another Euro game, then St Johnstone, so it’s still a lot of games.”
Celtic have to be mindful that, in last year’s qualifiers, Riga recorded a home win over Copenhagen, who ended the Scottish champions’ interest in this tournament.
Rangers, meanwhile, will have to be wary of Willem II after they posted a 4-0 win over Heracles in the Eredivisie at the weekend, while the Ibrox side drew 2-2 with Hibernian at Easter Road.
In contrast to his barren domestic record, Europe has been a largely enjoyable arena for Steven Gerrard, with only five defeats in 33 outings and the trips have been a source of great enjoyment for Rangers fans.
“They will be on the TVs and supporting us from back home, but it’s not the same,” the manager said.
“I feel for the players and for the supporters. These nights should be the highlights of your career, nights you tell your kids and grandkids about – when you went to Holland and Portugal and other countries and played in front of thousands of Rangers fans.
“Unfortunately, that has been taken away from us at the moment, but we respect and understand the situation we are in.”
Alfredo Morelos scored six Europa League goals last season and Gerrard hopes that the tournament will ignite the striker’s instincts. “He knows he has to perform if he is to be selected to play at this level,” the manager said. “There is a big demand from myself, the coaching staff and his team-mates because we put a lot of responsibility on him. He has been excellent in this competition. He is a threat and we have to supply him with the right service.”
The fortunes of the other two Scottish contenders intertwined on Sunday when Motherwell left Pittodrie with a 3-0 win over Aberdeen. Motherwell flew to Israel on Wednesday for their meeting with Hapoel Be’er Sheva and Mark O’Hara – who opened the scoring on Sunday – spoke of the consequent boost to his colleagues’ morale when he said: “It felt like everything was really coming together.
“We trusted each other and we stuck to our principles. Hapoel is a big challenge, but it suits us to play in games where the pressure is on other teams.”
Aberdeen will be without defender Scott McKenna – who has joined Nottingham Forest for a reported £6 million fee – when they face Sporting in Lisbon.