Celtic’s Brendan Rodgers makes Zenit favourite to reach last 16

• Rodgers appreciates Russian side’s greater spending power
• Zenit St Petersburg have not played since December

The level of European competition may have changed but the message from Brendan Rodgers has not. Celtic’s manager has emphasised time and again the difficulties associated with competing in the Champions League and he was equally pragmatic when assessing a Europa League tie against Zenit St Petersburg.

Celtic arrived at this last-32 clash having finished third in a Champions League section that included Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich. Zenit, managed by Roberto Mancini, may not have the status of those superpowers but they retain a spending capability which dwarfs Celtic’s.

Rodgers was emphatic in his claim that Zenit should be favourites to reach the last 16. “I never say that lightly,” he said before Thursday’s first leg in Glasgow. “I always think: ‘We are Celtic and …’

“But I have always been realistic. I think I have always been a realist and when you look at their investment and level of players they have they will expect to go through. Listen, I think you get to the last 32 and they are always going to be tough games.”

A glimmer of hope for Celtic resonates in Zenit’s lack of recent action. Owing to Russia’s winter break, the team second in the top flight have not played since 11 December. Zenit exited the Europa League at this stage last season. “It just depends what way you view it,” Rodgers said. “You could look at it and say it makes them fresher. The break could maybe freshen them and revitalise them.

“We have the same experience in pre-season when you are not in top condition but you can still be at a good level. We played against them when I was at Liverpool and went out on away goals. It was a similar time, we lost the away leg and won the home leg 3-1. They were pretty fit then.”

The key Rodgers worry will naturally relate to a Celtic defence which, even at the domestic level where they are so superior to all others, has regularly appeared vulnerable this season. “It’s important for us to defend well,” he said. “That has been the disappointment for us at this level.

“We have shown that we can defend but your concentration level has to be so high. That has been the difficulty at times. Playing domestically and then going into European football you can’t take your eye off anything for a second. You have got to be constantly concentrated at this level because of the level of player.”

Celtic’s case is hardly helped by a raft of injuries. Rodgers revealed that Nir Bitton was likely to miss the rest of the season after being diagnosed as requiring knee surgery.