Celtic head into Europa League qualifying round tonight after falling at the second hurdle in Champions League against Hungarian Champions Ferencvaros.
Tonight, it’s the Champions of Latvia – Riga FC – lying in wait and whether the reasons for the loss at home to Ferencvaros were underestimating our opponents, bad luck with injury, tactical headscratchers or the usual lack of preparedness from a recruitment perspective, Celtic can’t afford to make the same mistakes in UEFA’s consolation tournament.
European football is vital to Celtic when it comes to the history of the cub, an international reputation as well as attracting and retaining players. With Celtic sitting out three consecutive Champions league campaigns and only qualifying for two out the last seven, some semblance of European football is vital to the club.
With the possibility of no fans in grounds until March next year, the exit from the premier competition and the financial hit that entailed, is looking like an opportunity not so much missed as rather hideously and meekly surrendered. It doesn’t bear thinking of further embarrassment or loss of income by exiting the fall-back trophy at the qualifying stage. This is now a vital source of revenue to the club, without which players multiple sales are likely.
🟢⚪️ 𝙈𝘼𝙏𝘾𝙃𝘿𝘼𝙔! #UEL Third Round Qualifier… 🇱🇻🍀
— Celtic Football Club (@CelticFC) September 24, 2020
Our opponents – Riga FC
Riga are back-to-back champions of their country. They are 19 games into their domestic season are currently top of their league four points clear of challengers RFS and have won 17 games from the 19 played. They have a goal difference of plus 33 and look well on their way to retaining their title. Their home record looks strong with nine domestic wins from 10 games.
In European football they have also emerged victorious in their last European encounter with a 1-0 win in a re-arranged Europa League qualifier over San Marino side Tre Fiori. Prior to this the Latvians had lost the first round Champions league qualifier against Maccabi Tel Aviv going down by two goals to nil in Israel.
Just in case anyone therefore thinks they should be an easy nut to crack for Celtic tonight it is worth looking at last season’s European performances, they certainly indicate a team Celtic cannot afford to take lightly.
After also falling at the first Champions League qualification hurdle – exiting on penalties to Dundalk – Riga dropped into Europa League qualifying and performed surprisingly well.
First up Polish Champions Piast Glawice were defeated on away goals. Riga lost the first leg 3-2 in Poland but recovered well and emerged victorious at home 2-1 to progress.
Next Riga faced HJK Helsinki and once again produced a shock. After drawing the home leg 1-1 Helsinki were strong favourites to finish the job at home, however resilience was shown and Riga drew the tie in Finland 2-2 to progress to the final qualifying round on away goals.
In that final qualifying play-off, the Latvian champions found themselves up against a team that was soon to become well known – and painfully so – to the Celtic support. Celtic’s last 32 conquerors from the Europa League last season, FC Copenhagen, eventually knocked Riga out at the last qualifying hurdle. After a 3-1 defeat in Copenhagen, Riga again showed the strength of their home form and won 1-0 against the Danes, eventually only losing 3-2 on aggregate.
It’s fair to say had this game been at Celtic Park then Riga would be struggling to have any hope at all, the fact it’s on home soil should mean Celtic take their opponent very seriously, we simply cannot afford to underestimate Riga as we did Ferencvaros.
How they line up
First up it’s worth pointing out the man who sets the side out is likely to be missing from the dugout tonight. Riga’s manager former Spartak Moscow boss, Oleg Kononov returned home to Russia because of undisclosed family reasons. He missed the last European qualifier and Riga were managed by their assistant manager, Mihals Konevs instead. This could be perceived as an advantage for Celtic and it should be, however Konevs has twice been manager of Riga FC previously and returned to the club last year to assist Kononov, he should therefore help cover the loss but the experience of Kononov will surely be missed.
There is a marked difference in Riga’s style of play against domestic opponents and their set up in European football however the formation remains the same. They play with four defenders, two holding midfielders, two wide players and an attacking number 10 supporting a sole striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Their domestic approach as an attacking side with damaging wide men at home is sacrificed for a men behind the ball counter attacking side in the qualifiers.
The danger in the wide areas is supplied by the choice of two Brazilians, Felipe Brisola or Roger and on the opposite flank by former Slavia Prague winger Jakub Hora. Congolese striker Kule Mbombo has been the main danger man this season with eleven goals, though it’s worth noting the fans don’t seem to feel his domestic performances transfer to European football and to that end the club have, in the last couple of weeks, taken Montenegro striker Stefan Milosevic on loan from Beveren in the Belgian Jupiler League. It will be interesting to see which striker lines up against the Hoops. The creativity from the middle of the park will be supplied by Portuguese playmaker Pedrinho.
It’s fair to say there is a warning to be heeded for Celtic. Riga line up in a very similar way to Ferencvaros, will hit on the counter attack and have wide players willing to run at and commit defenders. Celtic will have to be aware of this and not over commit to the attack without thought for the counterattacking consequences.
One to target
Now 30 years old, former Celtic youth left back Anders Kurakins has been with Riga since leaving Hamilton Accies in 2016. His lack of pace is an area Celtic can exploit, be that James Forest’s direct running or the movement of Jeremie Frimpong dragging the full back out of position, Celtic can target Kurakins and fashion space in behind. It will surely be tempting for Neil Lennon to play two strikers and try and get the full back isolated by Forrest or Frimpong and get the ball cut back to Ajeti and Edoaurd. This is a clear weakness in Riga and one worth narrowing in on tonight.
One to watch
The width from both the left and right will be the strengths of the Latvians and Jakub Hora is a player worth watching. Hora will attack down the right and the former Slavia Prague wide man already has a wealth of European experience, more than most in the Riga side, having performed in both the Europa League and the Champions League with Slavia. If, as is likely, it will be Greg Taylor tasked with patrolling Celtic’s left-hand side, the Celtic full back will need to be on his game regarding his defensive responsibilities as well as getting forward.
Riga are a dominant side in their domestic environment and have managed to transfer the confidence that brings to perform admirably in European competition over the last couple of seasons. Neil Lennon will surely be aware of this and also acutely aware there was an opportunity missed in Champions league qualification that can’t be repeated by a complacent approach tonight.
Playing with a striker on this occasion would be advantageous, getting two into the starting line-up may be too much for the Latvians to cope with. Celtic need to start in the front foot and impose ourselves on the Latvians, allowing then to get a foothold in the game early on might make for a long evening.
Celtic could and should win this if we play our strongest team and don’t have one eye on Sunday’s game with Hibs. This is a night for converting any half chances that come our way and Albian Ajeti could be just the man to do it. With Odsonne Edoaurd able to have more of a free role around the Swiss international, it looks the ideal partnership to unsettle Riga tonight. Let’s hope Neil Lennon agrees.
It may well be a tight game in terms of scoreline and with a defence still coughing up goals it will be for the forwards to ensure the game is won tonight. I’ll take Celtic to win 3-1 and Albian Ajeti and Odsonne Edouard to share the goals.
Tonight’s opponents – Riga FC of Latvia – were potential Qualifying Round 1 opponents in the Champions League, before we drew KR Reykjavik.
Here’s an article I wrote for @CelticStarMag last month providing a bit of background on them.
— Matt Corr (@Boola_vogue) September 24, 2020