This evening Celtic begin their Europa League group phase campaign at home to AC Milan. There are tougher teams in Europe right now, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy to get a result against the only Serie A side to have a 100% record so far this season.
Last season Celtic faced Lazio in Europa League Group E and beat them home and away. For a team that would go on to finish fourth in Serie A that’s pretty decent, especially when you consider only five points separated them from eventual champions Juventus.
Ironically, the two teams who qualified from last season’s Group E – Celtic and CFR Cluj – find themselves back in the Europa League again. The two teams that failed to qualify from that group – Lazio and Rennes – both find themselves in the Champions League.
Rennes and Lazio both earned automatic qualification for the group stage of the Champions League. Lazio finished some 12 points ahead of Milan who managed a sixth place finish and entry into the second qualifying round of Europa League.
On their way to Group H, the Rosseneri beat Shamrock Rovers (0-2), Bodo Glimt (3-2) and Rio Aves (2-2 AET). The latter hurdle was settled 10-11 on penalties which for a club with 18 European and international titles, is almost a fall from grace.
Whilst Milan didn’t sweep aside the opposition with startling scorelines, it’s worth mentioning that they have a wealth of expensive talent in their ranks. It’s also worth remembering that Celtic have lost to teams deemed lesser than Milan twice this season already and on home soil too.
Neil Lennon and his players righted the wrongs of last summer’s Champions League exit by qualifying from their Europa League group with two games to spare and winning the group overall. The question is, can they do anywhere near the same this season after this summer’s Champions League exit?
Firstly, they must pick themselves up from Sunday’s result. The defeat by their Glasgow rivals was a setback and it should be a wake up call too.
It was the first domestic loss of the season, but not the end of the season. Yet it has probably left many of us doubting our chances in the Europa League nevermind the SPFL.
A decent result against Milan would go a long way to healing those wounds. It would be the perfect tonic for everyone and is certainly not impossible if we get our act together.
The only reservation some may have is that so far this season our performances have been unconvincing. Once the transfer window closed I had really hoped the Bhoys’ focus would have returned, but I haven’t seen much evidence of that.
The international break was a distraction and also a hindrance. We lost four of our players on international duty to covid-19.
Potentially that figure could have been greater given the amount we had on duty. We still have a decent squad though and should have been able to cope and adapt accordingly.
I’ve seen Neil Lennon overcome many hurdles over the years as a player and a coach. I won’t give up on him or the team now.
I remain critical when he gets it wrong and full of praise when he gets it right. That is no different to how I have spoken of any Celtic manager, good, bad or ugly.
Lennon feels what the fans feel. Perhaps that is his Achilles heel.
As a manger though he still has to deliver. His players must also deliver and there are some who don’t appear to be at the races.
This evening’s game will either win over some of the doubters or lose even more of those already feeling broken from Sunday. The Celtic romantic in me will as ever be hoping for a night of European glory.
These nights have always been a source of great excitement whether in the stadium or watching on TV. Without the fans in the stadium it will be less illuminating for our players, but that’s the same for everyone right now.
As an armchair fans these days, the canned audience provides a little bit of atmosphere if you can suspend belief. All that matters on the night though is the result.
We will still be without Odsonne Edouard, Nir Bitton, Hatem Elhamed, Christopher Jullien, James Forrest and Mikey Johnston. Ryan Christie Will be available once again which is a real boost as he was said to have been ready at the weekend, only for the authorities to veto his return due to government guidelines.
Former Celt and international team mate Kieran Tierney got to play for Arsenal despite being in the same scenario. Hopefully that means Christie will be raring to go.
Given our shortage of central defenders it would be wise to play four at the back. We failed to do this against our city rivals and lost the battle in the poorly manned wide areas.
Milan normally play a 4-2-3-1 formation and we could suffer a similar fate to Sunday should we ignore the obvious again. Even without six first team players, we have to put in a shift and get this campaign off to a good start.