If you’d told me a couple of months ago that we were going to go into Matchday 6 of the Europa League with qualification in our own hands I wouldn’t have believed you. However, the turn around in Celtic’s fortunes since that time has been fabulous.
The issues of the summer, though not completely forgotten, now seem like a bit of a distant memory. Such is Celtic’s level of performance right now it is hard to look back.
Celtic have got themselves out of a rut and playing some tremendous football into the bargain. They have been focussed on what lies ahead instead of dwelling on the past.
To watch the team evolve in the last couple of months has been thrilling. Player after player has stood up to be counted.
During a hectic winter run in, Celtic have put themselves back at the top of the league, won the League Cup and got their European mojo back. Tonight they welcome RB Salzburg to Celtic Park in a match that the Hoops cannot afford to lose.
Now to be honest, had Salzburg not beaten Leipzig two weeks ago, the game would probably have been a bogey. That said it also required Celtic to beat Rosenborg in Trondheim and Leipzig in Glasgow prior to tonight’s game.
Celtic have done their bit and Salzburg have done theirs. The Austrians have won 5 out of 5 games in this group and they will want to make it 6 despite having won the group already.
They’ve also bagged three times the amount of goals that Celtic have and conceded one less. Brendan Rodgers will not be underestimating Salzburg.
The Austrians have a good record against Celtic and competing in last seasons Europa League. I’m not going with the Red Bull collusion storyline.
I don’t expect anything but a victory from Leipzig who entertain Rosenborg at the same time. The Norwegians haven’t got a single point to show and I don’t expect that to change this evening.
The ball is in entirely Celtic’s court. A win would be fantastic, but a draw is more than sufficient and possibly the best we can hope for given how well Salzburg have done in this tournament in the past 18 months.
The only modicum for Celtic is that with qualification and top spot already secured by Salzburg, the visitors may not be quite as up for it as the hosts. And when you consider Celtic are on playing well right now, these combining factors could be well-timed for our European hopes.
Our form is good, our attitude is balanced and player availability strong for the most part. For a squad that has been criticised for being smaller than previous seasons, each player has their own unique value.
With a few exceptions, every single first team player has a key role to play be it in the starting eleven or from the bench. The headache for Brendan Rodgers is how does he play it tonight?
Celtic’s last two Europa League matches have been without Scott Brown in the starting lineup. With fluidity playing a key part in Celtic’s form right now would Brendan even dare displace anyone to allow the club captain back in?
There is a balance to be struck in these games. To remain strong, retain your form and not upset the flow.
At this moment in time I would suggest that Broony coming back in could go either way. With Celtic’s scoring opportunities greatly enhanced without his inclusion of late it is a tough call whether you want to disrupt that in place of a no holds barred midfield spoiler.
My feeling is that we start with Broony on the bench as we have since he returned from injury. The only exception being that he started against Motherwell.
As much as he can offer in physical games, we also have to flex our muscles on the attacking front. We have to take the game to Salzburg and that might be more successful with a bit more verve in the midfield.
Callum McGregor has covered every blade of grass since he filled in for his skipper. You could argue that he even has a good shout as captain.
Ryan Christie’s continued rise this season has been nothing short of impressive. You can’t leave him out of any midfield selection right now.
Tom Rogic, is still getting back to his best but he can always produce something magical in a game. Tonight could be just one of those matches for him.
James Forrest has been unplayable since last season. He has goals, assists and route one football in his locker and a strong contender for Player of the Year.
Those are the guys that have to play tonight. The question for Brendan Rodgers is who does he throw in as his fifth midfielder/attacker?
With the exception of the match away to Motherwell, Scott Sinclair has started every game since Celtic since the 0-5 demolition of Dundee at the end of October. Therefore it is likely that he will get the nod ahead of Olivier Ntcham or Scott Brown.
Sinclair has yet to rediscover his first season form of 25 goals and 13 assists in 50 games. That earned him the SPFA Player of the Year, SFWA Player of the Year, Celtic Supporters’ Player of the Year and the Celtic Players’ Player of the Year awards.
Last season both his and Celtic’s performances were lacklustre yet the stats tell a different story. 18 goals and 17 assists in 55 games is not to be sniffed at as it played a huge part in securing the double treble for the us.
This season he’s way off the pace with 5 goals and 5 assists from 27 games, but there have been moments of confidence creeping back into his game albeit with no real consistency. A continued run in the team will perhaps help him get back to his best because if he doesn’t, Lewis Morgan will be knocking on the door.
For now the spotlight is off Sinclair as fans and the media focus on the top performers in this team such as Forrest, McGregor, Tierney, Christie and Benkovic. Tonight though I expect to see Sinclair on the left and he must focus on getting back to the player he can be.
It’s all in your hands boys. It’s all in your hands.
I end today’s blog in acknowledgement of Leigh Griffiths. Yesterday, Brendan addressed the media and informed them that the striker would be taking a break from the game to obtain some help and support with issues that have been affecting him.
I’m not going to speculate on what those issues may be. The only thing I want is for Leigh to seek the assistance he needs and that he gets back to a good place on and off the field.
He’s an important player for the club and the fans, who has overcome every obstacle to be a Celtic star. Whatever is affecting him right now, we all want to see him back in the Hoops as soon as he physically and mentally can.
Let’s hope we can give you some good news after tonight. All the best Leigh.