Celtic could have qualified from their Champions League group with a game to spare, but it all went wrong in Lisbon and now it’s down to the wire. Level on points with Benfica but behind in the head-to-head, Neil Lennon’s men need to get more points against Spartak Moscow this week than Benfica get from Barcelona. It couldn’t be much tighter and now it’s do or die time for the Hoops. Here are five reasons why Celtic can go through to the knockout stages.
The players are stinging
Celtic have performed best this season when they’ve come under attack from the media. Maulings of St Johnstone and Hearts came on the back of stinging criticism for poor performances against Kilmarnock and Inverness respectively. The legendary defeat of Barcelona followed bad press for dropping points at Dundee United. Right now the hacks, and even some fans, have the knives out again after a weakened side drew with Arbroath in Saturday’s Scottish Cup tie. Accusations of complacency in domestic games undoubtedly have some foundation but, given what the team has achieved in Europe so far, the derision from some quarters has been completely over the top. The players will be hurting. When the criticism has been at its fiercest, they’ve responded with some excellent results. Spartak just might feel the wrath of a wounded animal tonight.
Neil Lennon has a strong squad available
Having beaten Barcelona without Scott Brown, Gary Hooper, Emilio Izaguirre, James Forrest and others, Celtic have a more complete squad to pick from this time out. Midfield powerhouse Victor Wanyama is suspended and will be sorely missed, and Forrest remains on the in jury list but captain Scott Brown has publicly declared himself fit. Fans may be sceptical about this, but if he feels good, then it’s great news for Celtic. All the other key men are available and the squad is also boosted by the recent good form of Lassad Nouiou and Beram Kayal’s return to first-team action. There are plenty attacking options available and with the marked improvement of Kelvin Wilson, the back door looks more securely shut as well. Lennon has a number of options open to him – he just has to pick the right ones.
Spartak are no great shakes
These are the kind of words that may well have to be eaten, but for all their significant investment in the team, Spartak Moscow have not looked a particularly intimidating side. They have some fine individual players of course, and those players will hurt Celtic if they’re given a chance, but as a team they haven’t lived up to their billing. In the first game, they didn’t know how to deal with Gary Hooper hovering on their shoulder or with Emilio Izaguirre’s delivery. The increasingly talismanic Samaras tore them apart. Ari, Emenike and of course former Celt Aiden McGeady are their danger men, but if they can be contained, Celtic can win the game. Spartak have disappointed in the group and although they’ll be looking to recover some pride, Celtic have no reason to be afraid of them.
Barcelona Are Consummate Pros
Barcelona have already qualified, and to join them Celtic have to better Benfica’s result at Camp Nou. With that in mind, the jangling nerves around Parkhead won’t have been helped by the news that Barcelona have named a match-day squad minus Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Jordi Alba, Pedro, Cesc Fabregas and Javier Mascherano. However, Barca will still be strong favourites to win that clash – they’re consummate pros after all, and they don’t know any other way to play than to go all-out for victory. The missing personnel shouldn’t really be that significant. After all, despite their star-studded line-up, isn’t it part of their total football ethos that players are more or less interchangeable anyway? It’s Barca’s system and team philosophy that has made them what they are, and the fringe men are just as well-drilled in the trademark tiki-taka. And, of course, one man who is in the squad is Lionel Messi. Chasing the world record for the most goals scored in a calendar year, Messi will be giving it everything to burst the Benfica net as often as possible. Benfica still have a mountain to climb to get any points, and that should be a source of encouragement for Celtic fans.
It’s written …
Europe has felt different this season. European competition has been a thing of fear and self-doubt for Celtic in recent years. The players are nervous. The fans look forward to European games with anxiety rather than genuine hope or expectation and have sleepless nights imagining the gleefully-written back-page headlines documenting another European disaster or near miss. That hasn’t been the case this season. The fans are quietly confident. Celtic have won away from home for the first time in the competition. They’ve looked (dare we say it) comfortable in some games, especially in the qualifiers, and there’s a more assured look to the team in Europe now. Even in the games that have been lost, they were always in it, and the traditional European panic button seems to be gathering dust somewhere in the bowels of Celtic Park. It’s hard to put the finger on why this has happened. Maybe, after a couple of years of development, the team is technically better or mentally stronger. Maybe Neil Lennon has his European tactics spot on. Or maybe it’s just written in the stars that this is the year the Hoops reclaim their international reputation. Let’s hope so …
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