Red Bull Salzburg v Celtic
(Europa League Group Stage)
Thursday 4th October, Red Bull Arena, Salzburg
Celtic’s Europa League campaign continues against yet another familiar opponent.
Last time the Hoops made the journey to the delightful, historic city of Salzburg, it was the opening game of the 2014/15 Europa League group stages, and Ronny Deila’s team made a more-than-decent account of themselves. They came away with a 2-2 draw through goals from Wakaso Mubarak, making his debut but never to score for Celtic again, and Scott Brown. Celtic would go on to lose the home leg 1-3 to their Austrian opponents after being swamped early doors by 2 goals in just 13 minutes.
It will be a nearly completely different Celtic squad rocking up in Austria four years later, but the weight of expectation will be the same. They will be glad to see the calendar change after a very difficult September. However, despite the hue and cry in the media and on the message boards, Celtic won four from six and drew one, so for a team in a slump, they’ve hung on in the form table. A change of scenery will hopefully do the offense some good, and they can channel the happy spirit of Wakaso on their way to a draw… or even the exotic and recherché European away victory.
Salzburg are quite simply an opponent to be taken very seriously, and will be the most talented European side Celtic will face all season before a possible matchup in the round of 32. They were semifinalists in last year’s Europa League, dispatching heavies Real Sociedad, Borussia Dortmund, and Lazio before falling to Marseille 3-2 on aggregate. This season, they are unbeaten domestically in nine, and won their Europa League opener with an 89th minute goal on the road in Leipzig. The winner of this match will certainly be in the driver’s seat in Group B.
Stats & Facts Corner:
- Salzburg top the Austrian Bundesliga table by a seven-point margin, scoring 24 goals and allowing 7 against
- Salzburg has only kept one clean sheet in their last eight matches in all competitions, but they have scored at least two goals in all of them, and have scored in 30 of their last 35.
- Celtic have claimed clean sheets in seven of their last eight, but only scored more than one goal in one of them.
- Celtic have never won away in Austria, and have never won away in the Europa League.
Salzburg’s lineup doesn’t change that much. In their last three matches (not counting a cup tie against third-tier SC Schwaz, their squad has remained the same in 10 out of 11 positions. They have changed their overall recruitment strategy somewhat from previous buy-buy-buy windows – almost like they were addicted to some energy drink! They are bringing through some of their own players to cement their places in the first XI these days, including Malian internationals Amadou Haidara and Diadie Samassekou. The latter, a stalwart defensive midfielder who has been linked with top clubs including Liverpool, will be a major headache for Celtic to deal with going forward.
Striker Moanes Dabour, meanwhile, will be a migraine of his own for Celtic’s banged-up back line. Dabour has scored three goals in Salzburg’s last two European matches to go along with ten domestic goals and three in Salzburg’s Champions League qualifiers. He’s riding high and will absolutely be the key man up front, but possible strike partners Fredrik Gulbrandsen and Takumi Minamino are also having excellent seasons.
Salzburg’s preferred formation is a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield, and employs elements of the Klopp/gegenpress system. Giving Celtic time on the ball and waiting to pounce on the counter, or getting in the faces of defenders to force errors has proven to be very effective. At least Brendan Rodgers should be well aware of what he’s up against.
From a selection perspective, Celtic are in a real pickle when it comes to defenders to face a very potent Salzburg attack. Injuries have taken out three of the top five centre-backs, leaving only Dedryck Boyata and Jack Hendry healthy with Marvin Compper having disappeared following a visit to the Springfield Mystery Spot. Injuries also are an issue further up the pitch, with Odsonne Edouard a major doubt after a violent challenge from Aberdeen’s Scott McKenna at the weekend.
Forget for a moment about Brendan Rodgers’ dogged refusal to change his system when facing the likes of PSG and Barcelona. Forget, if you can, about the truly hideous and predictable tankings that came out of that stubbornness. Forget all that like the night you went through two bottles of Buckfast. Through that haze, can we maybe imagine that Celtic might set their stall out defensively, to frustrate an attack on the road and to surprise an opponent by playing a modified system?
Well, although there have been a couple of hints dropped in the media at a possible tactical change, don’t count on it. Celtic probably don’t have the personnel for a stout defense. A theoretical and rather stodgy 5-3-2 could be made with: Gordon; Gamboa, Lustig, Boyata, Hendry, Tierney; Brown, Mulumbu, Ntcham; Rogic, Griffiths. Again, though, seeing this eleven on Thursday night is vanishingly unlikely, and really most of the team will pick itself, what with all the injuries.
The only selection question Rodgers will have is picking three attackers from the foursome of Forrest, Sinclair, Rogic and McGregor.
Key points to watch:
- Salzburg Attack vs Celtic Defense: Usually I write something kind of snide about Celtic’s offense, but really, keeping a clicking Salzburg side contained will be the key on Thursday. All eyes will be on Dedryck Boyata and Jack Hendry but Craig Gordon will need to be at his best.
- Celtic vs The Yardstick: Think back to Celtic’s 3-0 win away in Anderlecht in the Champions League last season; that might perhaps provide a blueprint for victory here. Like that matchup, this is a good barometer for where Celtic stand among their European counterparts.
- Old Scott Sinclair vs New Scott Sinclair: Is Scott Sinclair finally back to his old self? It was sort of a jammy goal for him at Parkhead this past weekend but we know him as a confidence player, and a classy performance here would go a long way to getting him back in the good books
Prediction: Salzburg 3, Celtic 1