Chris Gallagher looks at Celtic in Milan and what to expect from Wednesday night.
It’s the first match in the Champions league, it’s away from home and it’s against Italian giants AC Milan. In many ways that one sentence should strike fear into the heart of every Celtic fan, but when ‘The Hoops‘ step onto a pitch on a Champions League night, anything is possible. Neil Lennon has instilled a grit and determination in his team that makes them hard to beat and, as we saw last season, away from home in Europe’s premier competition, Celtic are no push overs.
A Return to Italy
The last 16 of last season’s competition was somewhat of an anti climax, with Juventus wrapping up the tie in the first leg after a 3-0 victory at Celtic Park. The match in Turin could have seen Celtic handed a harsh lesson but instead they were compact, resilient and created numerous chances. It finished 2-0 to the Italians but poor finishing from Gary Hooper (Who?) as well as Efe Ambrose’s inability to head a ball from 5 yards when unmarked AGAIN, meant that Celtic didn’t score but still looked a constant threat.
You could argue that Juventus already had the next round on their mind and took their foot off the gas, but an early goal would have changed the whole outlook of the match. Of course it didn’t come but I was impressed with how Lennon set his team up that night and the determination of the players involved. Joe Ledley was particularly impressive.
We saw some terrific away performances in the Champions League last season, with the 3-2 victory in Moscow a stand out. Add to that a disciplined and mature display in Barcelona, which saw Celtics luck run out in injury time, and the only disappointment was the performance in Lisbon, which was lacklustre at best. The problem with the match in Portugal was the expectancy level thrust upon the team after the incredible performance and result against Barcelona, the players, understandably, failed to adjust…..The players won’t have the same problems when going to Italy this time around, Celtic are clearly the underdogs.
Looking ahead to Milan, most of the focus will be on Mario Balotelli and Kaka. It’s been confirmed that Kaka will miss the tie but for me the big bonus for Celtic is that Montolivo will also sit this one out. The versatility of the midfielder means he can sit deep as well as link midfield and the forward line, something that Scott Brown has been doing fantastically well for Celtic of late. Kaka hasn’t played on a consistent basis for well over a season and looked ring rusty against Torino. His absence means an over reliance on the Brazilian, which is something that is sure to develop, wont be in place against Celtic…..unfortunately.
Milan have been using a 4-3-1-2 formation with Balotelli being the focal point as Matri makes runs in behind the defence, dragging the back four all over the place and allowing the midfield runners space to run into. Matri was key to Juventus’s victory last season and is the type of player that Celtic have traditionally struggled against, I mean how many times did Inzaghi score against the Hoops over the years?
The problem with Matri is that Celtic find it difficult to mark such a player. The type of forward he is means he moves across the back line pulling people out of position, which ultimately requires a disciplined display from the back four, something that isn’t Celtic’s strong point. How do you solve a problem like Matri? I think you man mark him…..and the man to do it? Charlie Mulgrew. It may seem like a bold move, but Mulgrew, as the extra man in midfield, could be Matri’s shadow. It would mean that the centre halves could focus on Balotelli without constantly looking over their shoulder for the striker.
The video below shows Matri’s persistence for the opening goal and a touch of class for the second. A real handful that needs to be constantly marked in order to nullify the threat he posses.
Milan have a whole host of injuries that will see them string together a weakened team, but facing a weakened AC Milan in Italy is still a daunting task. Coming through the tough qualifying round, beating PSV 4-1 on aggregate, the star of the show was Kevin-Prince Boateng, who scored 2 against the Dutch but was then sold to Schalke during the transfer Window. Looking at who is likely to line up for the Italians, a midfield that features Muntari and Nigel de Jong does not have the same fearful ring as one featuring Montolivo and Kaka.
With Balotelli and Matri up front, Robinho will likely fill the hole or Allegri may revert back to the 4-3-3 formation that worked so well against PSV. That would mean a more balanced formation and one that I think would suit Celtic better. Defensively Milan have looked shaky, with Mexes not the player he was a few years ago and Zapata not as consistent as you need a centre half to be. Who will play at fullback? Against Torino it was midfielder Urby Emanuelson at left back and Cristian Zaccardo at right back. With a strong right hand side, Celtic will look to exploit Emanuelson.
Neil Lennon will look to take advantage of Milan on the counter attack and faces an interesting selection choice. The back four picks itself, with Lustig, Ambrose, Virgil and Izzaguire shoe-ins to start. The midfield is where it gets interesting. If fit then I wold predict that Forrest and Boerrigter would start, with Ledley, Brown and Commons in midfield and Samaras up front….but were would that leave Lennon’s golden boy Mulgrew? I did mention above that I would have Mulgrew man mark Matri but it’s unlikely that Lennon will go down that route, Charlie could find himself on the bench for this one OR will Lennon mix it up and replace Izzy with Mulgrew like he did against Shaktar?
Either way, Samaras will play up front. The supposed focal point of the team but one that drifts all over the place. I love Samaras but wide left every time. I would bite the bullet and play Stokes as the lone striker…..an unpopular decision I’m guessing but he deserves his shot. It’s too soon for Pukki and it appears that the management team have no confidence in Balde, so Stokes would get the nod for me.
So personally, in midfield I would go with the following (With Stokes up front):
| Samaras – Mulgrew – Ledley- Brown – Matthews |
but it’s more likely to be:
| Boerrigter – Brown – Commons – Ledley – Matthews |
Just to point out, I love Kris Commons but feel he would have more of an impact in this game coming on for the last half an hour as opposed to being on his last legs come the 65th minute.
At the weekend, Torino focused their attacks down the right hand side and Milan looked vulnerable to the counter attack. If the Hoops use the pace and direct running of Matthews and Samaras correctly, which I’m hoping means a wide left position for Samaras, then a scoring draw may be on the cards and the first points of the campaign. I think 1-1 would be as impressive a result as beating Barcelona at home…..No matter the quality within their squad, it’s AC Milan in Italy, there aren’t many tougher games in European football.