Platini gives clear hint that Celtic could get Europa League reprieve

UEFA president Michel Platini yesterday gave the strongest possible indication that Celtic will be reinstated in the Europa League at the expense of Sion.

Speaking at the draw for the group stages of the tournament, Platini was unequivocal that the Swiss club had been guilty of fielding ineligible players in selecting signings made during a transfer embargo imposed on them by Fifa that was later upheld by a Court of Arbitration ruling.

It now seems highly likely that Neil Lennon’s side, despite their 3-1 loss in Sion on Thursday night, will take the place of their vanquishers in a section that would pit them against Atletico Madrid, Udinese and Stade Rennais. Lennon confirmed in the wake of Celtic’s seeming exit that his club had lodged an appeal to Uefa over Sion’s actions, and this will be heard by the Disciplinary and Control body.

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“It seems to me that Sion have completely broken the transfer ban imposed on them and are in direct violation of the rules, and Celtic could come back in,” Platini said ahead of the draw for the group stage.

“But we must wait and see what the outcome is, it is a legal issue that has to be resolved. But to me the issue seems clear and Sion have broken the terms of the ban.”

Platini’s understanding of the situation was fully endorsed by Uefa general secretary Gianni Infantino, who said: “We expect to receive Celtic’s appeal in what has been a long-running saga regarding Sion. The Disciplinary and Control body will decide on the issue before the group stages start, although Sion’s name will be in the draw. Sion has the right to go to CAS (the Court of Arbitration for Sport), who will settle the matter.”

The point of contention relates to the timing of the transfer ban. It is beyond dispute that Sion were guilty of inducing Egypt goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary to break his contract with Cairo club Al Ahli in 2008. They were banned from registering players in two subsequent windows the following year.

But by pursuing the matter through CAS, Sion agreed to be bound both by any judgement and the timing of it by the arbitration body. CAS ruled in June 2010 that, from that date, Sion would be unable to sign players for the two transfer windows. Against Celtic they had five players – Pascal Feindouno, who crucially netted twice, Mario Mutsch, Gabri, Jose Goncalves and Billy Ketkeophomphone – recruited in that timeframe and therefore deemed ineligible by the authorities.

Sion’s owner Christian Constantin’s strident belief that his club are in the right comes from the fact that a provincial court found in their favour last week and ordered the Swiss FA to approve their squad, prompting Infantino to warn that the country’s football body and Sion could face sanctions for involving civil authorities in football matters. The club and the Swiss FA currently have a case pending at CAS, which is expected to reach a judgement in the next few days.

All of which could mean better news for Lennon, who was also pleased to be able to reveal that Emilio Izaguirre, who is believed to be making good progress with his recovery from a broken ankle, has “agreed” to a one-year contract extension, while Scott Brown is “almost there” on a four-year deal.

These follow Charlie Mulgrew inking a new one-year extension at the start of the week. “We are delighted,” he said. “They are big players for us.”

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Lennon concedes that he is now facing his biggest test as Celtic manager after failure against Sion bookended the rage-inducing home defeat by St Johnstone. “We have to get over it quite easily because we have a championship to win,” he said, admitting the failure to take Celtic into the Europa League group stages for the second consecutive year, following on from their mauling in Utrecht, was “very galling”.

“It might be just the state of play at the minute; the way things are,” he reflected on becoming the first Celtic manager to see his team exit at their point of entry in three consecutive European tournaments. “But, listen, the buck stops with me. I felt we had enough over the two legs to get through. We prepared as well as we could and I picked the team over the two games. There is no point in picking on the players or anybody else. I am the manager so I have to take the responsibility.”