Who would have thought that as Helsingborgs repeatedly cut our defence apart in the second qualifying round first leg that six months later we would be gearing up to play in the last sixteen of the competition? As somebody once said ‘football’s a funny old game’.
And Celtic’s Champions League campaign has proved how funny football can be – from two poor performances against Benfica to the superb win in Moscow, from the heartbreak of the Camp Nou to the football nirvana that took place when we beat Barcelona at Celtic Park. And now we sit proudly in the last sixteen of the Big Cup for only the third time, ready to take on Italian champions Juventus.
Credit has to be given to manager Neil Lennon and the players for how well they have done in the Big Cup this season. Even though I am one of Lennon’s critics, I have to admit that his tactics in most of the games have been superb. From the attacking substitutions he made in Moscow, to the containing game played in both games against Barca, Lennon has mostly got things right. Even though the team were set up too cautiously against Benfica at home, you cannot deny how well he has done in his first Big Cup campaign.
The players also have exceeded exceptions in their performances, Fraser Forster has been in superb form, particularly in both games against Barca, the much-maligned Kelvin Wilson has been rock solid and Georgios Samaras has emerged as an unlikely Big Cup talisman, with five goals scored so far, including the late winner in the breakthrough victory in Moscow. And now those players have to raise themselves once more, as Juventus looms large.
Hopefully Samaras will have recovered from his injury to take his place in the line-up, and Efe Ambrose will not be too exhausted after only just returning after playing in Nigeria’s ACN winning side. Normally I would not take risks on these players, but as this is Celtic’s biggest match for years, I feel we should take the risk. The team will probably line up in it’s usual Big Cup 4-5-1 formation, with Forster in goal, Emilio at left back, Wilson and Ambrose at center-half and as he is more experienced Lustig ahead of Maathews at right back. Although Lennon might consider playing Matthews instead of Emilio at left back as he has done well there previously. The midfield will obviously contain Wanyama and Brown, Mulgrew will undoubtedly start for his set pieces, Ledley will also play and Samaras will play in midfield with the job of supporting Hooper at times, as Hooper will be playing as the lone striker. This is a cautious line-up, but not conceding a goal is very important and this team will reflect that. It is unfortunate that two of our most creative players – Forrest and Commons – will be on the bench but they are more than capable of coming on and putting a shift in.
As for our opponents, obviously the danger man is Andrea Pirlo, who was at his elegant best in last summer’s European Championships, and is more than capable of dictating a game. Young Frenchman Paul Pogba has been terrific since his move from Manchester United, and his midfield battle with Wanyama promises to be intriguing. In goals, Gigi Buffon is a legendary figure, who has practically won all there is to win in football, and up front Matri and Giovinco will be a handful.
In some ways, this game will be even more difficult than the Barcelona game as the stakes are so high. The last sixteen is completely different from the group stage, as both teams know that one mistake could be fatal, even more so for Celtic as conceding an away goal would make an already difficult task almost impossible. As a result it wouldn’t surprise if the game was a tense midfield battle with few chances, so we will have to take the ones we get. A goalless draw would be a good result to take over to Turin as we are more than capable of scoring goals away from home – we’ve done so in every Big Cup game this season.
Let’s hope that tomorrow night is yet legendary Parkhead night which we’ve had so many of in the last fifteen years. Barcelona twice, Milan, Manchester United, Spartak Moscow, Porto, Benfica – all have been defeated on famous Celtic nights. Let’s hope that tomorrow joins that great list.