The champions league draw has seen Celtic matched up with three giants of European football; Ajax, Milan and Barcelona, Celtic have faced all three since the turn of the century, and similarly to last season have been written off already, but is it too soon to make a decision?
They’ll begin their pursuit of the last 16 with a trip to the San Siro. Milan have some of the best attacking players in Europe including the mercurial Stephan El Shaarawy, KP Boateng and the infamous maverick Mario Balotelli. They’ve even brought in Alessandro Matri from Juve, but it’s Milan’s midfield maestro Riccardo Montolivo that makes the team tick. In order to progress, Celtic will have to pack the midfield in all of their games, but it will prove most effective against the Rossoneri, especially if it neutralises the threat of Montolivo. Whilst Milan will be capable and expected to take 6 points from Celtic, the fragility of their defence can be exploited by ensuring their midfielders are constantly outnumbered and bombardment of Mexes and Zapata on the counter-attack.
Ajax are a bit of a different animal. Celtic faced them in a preseason friendly last summer, and were thumped 4-0. They are the weakest of the three teams in this group, and a bit of a bombscare when it comes to defending. Their strongest players are undoubtedly Eriksen, Fischer and Alderweireld, but with Eriksen on the move and Alderweireld on his way to Atletico Madrid, it weakens the Dutch outfit significantly. Celtic again must deploy Scott Brown and Joe Ledley to support and assist the full backs in Amsterdam to nullify the threat of Ajax’ wide men, but ensure they keep the ball when they get it. But that’s easier said than done when facing a team that undoubtedly are stronger and classier than Celtic on the ball. It’ll be Ajax at home that Celtic will be expected to pick up points from, but anything from the two games will be a bonus.
Then there’s Barcelona. Celtic enjoyed success against them last season with two incredibly organised backs-to-the-wall performances. However the Catalans are far more advanced this season than last. Tata Martino has come in and already made a difference. The Catalans press much better this season than under Vilanova, and the addition of Neymar replacing Villa gives them more potency up front. I maintain that last season had Sergio Busquets been playing, it would have been a very different outcome at Celtic Park, and I can’t see any way for Celtic to hurt this revamped, revitalised Catalan unit.
The one thing that Celtic do have is home form. Both Milan and Barcelona have fallen to Celtic in Glasgow, and the electric atmosphere that engulfs Celtic Park on champions league nights is infamous. Whilst Celtic can rely on this support to back them for 90 minutes, it was Celtic cult legend Jock Stein who said “a fan has never scored a goal”. They must get their tactics and performances right on the park, or the atmosphere is irrelevant.
Pride will never let them admit it, but realistic Celtic fans will be watching Ajax performances during the group stage, and hoping to pip them to the Europa League drop out place, but dreamers will see Celtic winning all their home games and hoping the other teams take points from each other. Celtic are a force at home in Europe, and despite improved performances and results away from home, I personally think that these sides have too much of what Celtic lack to be troubled by the Scottish Champions.
But there’s a dreamer in all of us….