This time last season Celtic were going about their Europa League business by beating Lazio at Celtic Park before defeating Italian opposition for the first time on their patch a fortnight later, as Celtic and Olivier Ntcham added another footnote to the rich history of Celtic by mirroring the result of the first leg and winning 2-1 in Rome.
Celtic emerged from the Europa League Group top of the tree and qualified for the last 32 with two games to spare. Ten-in-a-Row is of course the goal this season but European football is where Celtic sustain their international reputation, attract players and of course make some much-needed income in such financially challenging times. It’s also a welcome distraction from the bread and butter pressures of Scottish football and we could do with a diversion at the moment that’s for sure.
As we start this seasons Europa League Group campaign at home to AC Milan it’s enough to whet anyone’s appetite, and in a group also containing French big spenders Lille and Czech campions Sparta Prague the section has an elite feel about it again this season.
Milan’s proud history
There are few clubs in the World quite as elite as AC Milan. Being Seven times European Champions and 18 times Serie A winners, 5 times Italian cup winners and seven times Italian Super Cup winners will give you such a reputation. Yet they also boast a FIFA Club World Cup, two Cup Winner’s Cups and five Uefa super cups – a joint record. There is also the not so insignificant matter of three Intercontinental Cup’s to admire. Historically then Milan certainly have a bit about them when it comes to prestige.
Milan’s season so far
This season they’ve started where they left off last year. They’ve won their first seven games and sit top of the pile in their domestic competition after finishing last year in fine form, going 12 games undefeated after football commenced again after the Italian league’s Covid 19 shutdown.
They have also won the Milan Derby on Saturday with a 2-1 win against Inter at the San Siro. It is the sort of form that will have them competing for a first Italian title in 10 years. Many are saying AC Milan are back and although that’s a little premature the signs for them are encouraging for now.
Formation and questions over the line-up
It of course remains to be seen as to whether manager Stefano Pioli will risk a full-strength team with this fixture sandwiched between the Milan Derby and Sundays match against AS Roma but I wouldn’t expect a shadow squad to take the field.
It is likely some stars will be rested with the weekend’s game in mind but much like Lazio did last season they’ll find a balance in utilising their squad and having a few top team players on show. The Milan schedule however may be to Celtic’s advantage if we don’t have to face the full might of an in-form side.
The Italian side play a 4-2-3-1 formation with left and right sided wide players and a playmaking Number 10 supporting a sole striker, they employ two holding defensive players protecting the advanced attackers and giving both full backs the licence to get forward and support those attacking options. It would be a surprise to see them deviate from that when they visit Celtic Park.
In central defence they are normally rock solid with captain Alessio Romagnoli beside Danish international Simon Kjaer the usual partnership, while at left full back Theo Hernández has recently signed from Real Madrid and on the opposite side home grown Davide Calabria played against Inter Milan. The two holding midfielders are usually 39 times capped Ivory Coast international Franck Kessié alongside Algerian International Ismaël Bennacer signed from Empoli last summer for £15million.
On the right wing plays newly capped Belgian international Alexis Saelemaekers, while Rafael Leão has played on the left wing but may deputise as a striker should star man Zlatan Ibrahimovic not be risked. Leao can also play the second striker role and with Hakan Calhanoglu injured that may be the change. Bosnian Rade Krunic is another who could well deputise for the Turk.
In terms of players they have a few key men missing. One player likely to miss out, despite being close to match fitness after four games absent with injury, is Ante Rebic. The 36 times capped Croatian International is one of those players you’d like to see play but secretly be rather happy if he’s kept in cold storage for Thursday night. Another more recent injury concern is Turkish playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu who with 8 goals in his last 14 games will be a miss for Milan. Central defender Matteo Gabbia will be missing too after he contracted coronavirus while Mateo Musacchio is also a long-term absentee with an ankle injury.
One to watch
It may well be AC Milan will rest stars but I’m sure one we’d all like to see is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Quite simply he is a legend of the game and isn’t shy in letting everyone know that he knows.
It’s now 19 years since Zlatan came off the bench at Celtic Park for a cameo appearance as his Ajax team exited the Champions league qualifiers to Celtic. Despite winning 1-0 on the night Celtic’s blitzing performance in Amsterdam – winning 3-1 in the Dutch capital – saw them through. A promising youngster then, Ibrahimovic has fulfilled that promise and then some, in a glittering career as the second-best Swedish striker in recent memory.
Speaking in 2013 Zlatan had this to say about his 2001 visit to Celtic Park. It’s fair to say he’ll probably be cursing that fact there will be no atmosphere this time around.
“Then when I got out on the pitch and the match began, I tried to communicate with my team player.But I heard nothing.The audience had such a mood. I did not hear what my team players said, if they called me or even the slightest, because it was such a beautiful and awesome atmosphere. It’s probably the best I have seen on the pitch.”
If he doesn’t grace us with his presence Zlatan is likely to be replaced by Rafael Leão. The former Sporting Lisbon and Lille forward already has two goals and an assist from three appearances this season and will be keen to make his mark given the chance. But with five goals in three games the evergreen Ibrahimovic is the man we’ll need to watch.
One to target
There’s not much in the way of weaknesses in this side. The right back Davide Calabria at a push over commits to attack and isn’t always so well covered by Alexis Saelemaekers playing in front of him, but in truth both are well covered by excellent central defenders and disciplined defensive midfield cover in Ismaël Bennacer. It’s an area we could target but it’s a hard sell to really call it a weak link.
Performances in Europe
As much as the Rossoneri’s league form has been impressive it’s fair to say they have had their tests in Europe this season. They defeated Shamrock Rovers, perhaps less convincingly than expected, winning 2-0, before defeating Bodo Glimt of Norway 3-2 at home. They then required penalties to see off Portuguese side Rio Avenue, eventually winning a mammoth shoot out 11-10 on spot kicks.
If there is hope for Celtic it lies in those European performances. It may be the Italian side have more pressing concerns this season than the Europa League. That said they are qualified now and with a Champions League place available to the winner of the tournament, focus may now become a little sharper as we hit the group stages.
A chance to rebuild confidence for Celtic
Saturday’s Glasgow derby performance has led to Neil Lennon feeling the pressure. In normal circumstances the visit of one of the most in-form and historically successful sides in Europe would be welcomed, but these are not normal times. No fans in stadium and with a side stuttering this season it could be a tough ask for Lennon and the players. Despite this there lies an opportunity for Celtic tomorrow night.
Good players can make for good teams and Celtic have those in abundance. What they lack is confidence at the moment. Confidence breeds performances, performances lead to winning runs and winning runs to momentum, and its momentum allied to ability that drives teams on to success.
A good performance and a win against Milan could go some way to rebuilding morale and could lead to a corner being turned for Neil Lennon and this Celtic team. While Milan make look to rest some players Celtic are not quite in a position where they could do so to the same extent.
Celtic could find an advantage in this game with accurate passing on the counter attack, there is scope for success if the ball can be played into the space behind when Milan over commit their full backs. It’s no use those passes being attempted by central defenders as we saw on Saturday. Celtic need to get the ball to the likes of Callum McGregor and Olivier Ntcham and look for accurate diagonal balls into the spaces vacated.
From there, there are opportunities to be had with good delivery from wide areas into the penalty box. Celtic will need to be fast to counter and accurate in their deliveries but it is in those areas that there are opportunities to be had. Given that it could be prudent for Celtic to consider matching the Milan formation and playing with width.
This game has perhaps understandably gone under the radar somewhat, yet games coming thick and fast give Celtic an opportunity to rebuild confidence and quickly. A win against a side of the quality of Milan would go a long way to putting a spring back in the step of Celtic and the support.