FK Sūduva v Celtic (Europa League Playoff Round)
Thursday 23 August 2018
Sūduva Stadium/ARVI Football Arena, Marijampolė, Lithuania
Having fallen out of the Champions League, Celtic can partially redeem themselves by advancing to the Europa League group stages – against an opponent with the echo of history.
Last time Celtic and Lithuanian A Lyga defending champions and current tabletoppers (15W-2L-3D) FK Sūduva met, it was the first stop on the Hoops’ legendary run to the 2002-03 UEFA Cup final, and the result was a cricket score: 10 (ten)-1 on aggregate to the good guys. What’s that they say about history repeating itself?
Celtic and Brendan Rodgers go into the match on a bit of a bounce, having dispatched second-tier Partick Thistle in the League Cup at the weekend. However, Celtic are still licking their wounds after a Champions League humbling at the hands of AEK Athens, and Rodgers was not entirely pleased with the performance in the win over Thistle. They are, on paper, a far better side than Sūduva, but that means absolutely nothing at this stage and Celtic will need a strong performance to be assured of advancing to the Europa League groups. On a more positive note, should Celtic progress we should expect a solid European campaign given the less imposing opposition.
FK Sūduva come into the tie off a narrow Europa League third-round qualifying advance on away goals against Latvian side Spartaks Jūrmala. Previously, they were knocked out of the Champions League 5-0 on aggregate in the second qualifying round by Red Star Belgrade after knocking out perennial European participants APOEL 3-2 on aggregate in the previous round. They topped the Lithuanian league for the first time in their long history in 2017/18 and are well on the way to two in a row this season, holding an eight-point lead in the A Lyga. Notably, they are just past the halfway mark of their season.
Stats & Facts Corner
Sūduva have 42 goals to show for their 20 league matches this season vs. only 10 scored against.
Last year’s top scorer (14 goals) and league POTY Karolis Laukžemis made the move to Alaves in the close season.
Celtic have outscored opponents 10-4 in this year’s European campaign.
The battle of the UEFA coefficients goes resoundingly to the Hoops, 31,000 to 2,000.
Celtic have not missed out on one of the European leagues’ group stages since 2010/11.
|July 24||Red Star Belgrade||Sūduva||3:0|
|August 1||Sūduva||Red Star Belgrade||0:2|
|August 9||Spartaks Jūrmala||Sūduva||0:1|
|August 16||Sūduva||Spartaks Jūrmala||0:0|
|August 8||Celtic||AEK Athens||1:1|
|August 14||AEK Athens||Celtic||2:1|
|August 18||Partick Thistle||Celtic||1:3|
Sūduva have been lining up in a 3-5-2 formation in their last few European matches and I can only assume they will do so again, against their toughest opponent yet.
Sūduva’s squad, not atypically for some of our more far-flung opposition, is a motley crew of homegrown Lithuanian and foreign players. Naturally, they include a random Brazilian, a midfielder named Guilherme Finkler, who scored their only goal in their last qualifier. Curaçaon striker Cicilia broke APOEL’s hearts in the first leg of their CL qualifier, shaking their confidence with a hat trick after just 19 minutes in.
They have been active in the market as recently as 8 August, bringing in striker Mihret Topčagić and midfielder Daniel Offenbacher in from Austrian side Wolfsberger AC. Sūduva have an experienced keeper in the Croat Ivan Kardum, and their captain, centre-back Algis Jankauskas, is the very definition of a grizzled veteran.
Celtic will need to play to their strengths and look to reestablish their possession-based game with good tempo that was on show in the early CL group stage against Alashkert – for what it’s worth, a team with a slightly higher UEFA coefficient than Sūduva! Moussa Dembele is hopefully back to full fitness after getting on the scoresheet against Thistle, but all eyes will be on Celtic’s discordant defensive back line. A clean sheet and a few goals would paper over a few big cracks and lower the collective blood pressure of the support.
Having shown he hasn’t missed a step in his time away, I believe Emilio Izaguirre will start over Kieran Tierney, who is making his way back from injury.
Key points to watch:
- Away goals matter. Personally, I prefer having the away match of the tie first, as Celtic get the chance to grab an all-important away goal or two, instead of having to worry about giving up those goals in the first leg at Celtic Park. A smash-and-grab early goal would be massive for the Hoops.
- Celtic’s composure on the road, particularly in defense, will need to improve. Although Sūduva Stadium, capacity 6,250, is no La Bombonera, but Celtic will need to have some steel in them especially if they find themselves in a figurative street brawl.
- Can Celtic manage any joy at all from set pieces?
- What do Sūduva have to lose? It will be interesting to see how Kazakh manager Vladimir Cheburin sets out his side. Look for the standard packed defense with a few nasty tackles, and their best chances to come at set pieces and on the counter.
- The officiating team for this match is a Croatian crew led by referee Ivan Bebek, often named the best referee in his country. In four matches he refereed in last year’s Europa League campaign, he showed 20 yellow cards and gave no penalties. In the 2016/17 EL campaign, he showed 28 yellows and one red, and gave two penalties in six matches worked.