Group Stage Fan Preview: Celtic

When you’re a Celtic fan, only three things in life are certain – death, taxes and your club needing to play three qualifiers to enter the UEFA Champions League.

Of course, it didn’t used to be like this, but the overall performance of Scottish football in Europe has slipped resulting in a reduction of places in the premier competition in the game.

Yet, the onetime European Cup winners aren’t even 15 years from their UEFA Cup final in Seville and multiple entries to the last 16 in previous Champions Leagues.

Nevertheless, The Bhoys have grown accustomed to the early season starts to play six matches to reach the competition proper.

The qualifiers

Celtic kicked off their quest with a relatively easy one on paper as they hopped across the water to Belfast to play Linfield at Windsor Park.

A simple 0-2 result was produced but Celtic were still lacking match fitness at the early stage but there was a clear sign of improvement as they romped home 4-0 in the return leg.

A harder contest awaited Celtic in the next round as they faced Norwegian champions Rosenborg in two very close with Celtic running out 0-1 aggregate winners thanks to a second half James Forrest strike.

The Rosenborg games were made tougher for Celtic as main strikers Moussa Dembélé and Leigh Griffiths had to miss out for the majority due to injury and suspension.

Furthermore, a growing list of crocked centre-backs piled up and forced Brendan Rodgers to deploy midfielder Nir Bitton in the back line for much of the away tie.

The play-off round’s opponents weren’t unfamiliar as the Scottish champions faced last season’s opponents FC Astana of Kazakhstan.

Brendan Rodgers couldn’t ask more from his side in the first leg at Parkhead as they steamrolled to a 5-0 victory.

The away leg required character from the Glaswegians and they showed just that by losing by a single goal in Astana in an enthralling 4-3 match.

Clear learning points were there to see following the qualifying matches such as the lack of available strikers and centre backs as well as the abilities of fringe players in matches with massive importance.

Qualifiers have now become a good way of determining whether a player has what it takes at Celtic as matches aren’t going to come much harder with the added pressure and financial implications of qualification.

The group stage draw

Thus, Celtic went into the draw for the Champions League with fans around the world begging and pleading for one thing – anyone but Barcelona!

The Bhoys have played the Catalan side in most of their European adventures this century and it would have been a relieving sight, believe it or not, when they were paired with Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Anderlecht.

However, Celtic aren’t completely unfamiliar with two of their three opponents this year as Munich, Anderlecht and Celtic were in the same group back in 2003.

On paper, Celtic haven’t got much chance of qualifying from Group B to the last 16, however, they will fancy their chances for Europa League qualification as a shoot-out in the last match day against Anderlecht seems a certainty.

The two big teams will look forward to coming to Celtic Park and experiencing that world-famous atmosphere with certain players already earmarking it as a fixture that they are eagerly awaiting.

How will Celtic play?

Understandably, the major step up in quality from the Scottish Premiership to the Champions League will mean that it will be a much more careful game plan undertaken by Brendan Rodgers.

However, that doesn’t mean much will change in the shape and options they have in attack.

The familiar 4-2-3-1 should continue but, as said before, Celtic’s usual pressing game will need to be careful in this competition as top teams can use it to their advantage and get in behind and have Celtic chasing shadows.

A main feature Celtic use to their advantage domestically is their superior fitness which will earn them scores of points over a season as teams begin to tire towards the end of matches and can be easily picked off.

This won’t be the case in the Champions League as teams will be just as fit as Celtic, so they must resort to other weapons in their arsenal.

One key avenue is to have an effective counter attack which Celtic are more than capable of pulling off with pacey wingers such as Scott Sinclair and Patrick Roberts at their disposal.

Where there is debate is the middle of the attack with Celtic left with an abundance of attacking midfielders, who offer different qualities.

Summer purchase Olivier Ntcham from Manchester City is becoming a mainstay in the centre of the park and Callum McGregor is becoming a firm fans’ favourite, but Stuart Armstrong and Nir Bitton will stake their claims to play.

The other debate is who starts as the lone striker.

The majority of fans will say Moussa Dembélé has all the attributes to be a top striker in and will offer more in European competition, however, Leigh Griffiths has come on leaps and bounds in the past year and has perfected his all-round game.

With Dembélé’s hamstring injury continuing into September, it appears Griffiths will get the nod in the early games and will need to pull out all the stops to prove he remains a starter.

Another problem for Celtic is the centre of defence and who should be deployed there with Erik Sviatchenko and Dedryck Boyata being side-lined for an extended period with the latter only returning recently for light training.

Who will need to shine?

Going into the final qualifier against Astana, one could argue that Celtic were weaker than ‘The Invincibles’ of the season before with a depleted defence and no Patrick Roberts on the flanks.

Nevertheless, Celtic managed to get their man as the England under-21 international re-signed on a year loan deal from Manchester City.

This deal is massive for The Hoops as Roberts is clear Champions League quality and brings an extra spark to an already exciting Celtic attack which clearly has an abundance of goals in it.

Roberts is a clear step up in quality on his rival for the right-wing spot, James Forrest, who often has to rely on his pace to get past a player and whip in a cross from the byline.

With Roberts, there is a greater dynamic to Celtic’s attack on the right in which he can use his pace as well as intricate dribbling skills to cut inside and get a familiar shot away to the opposite post.

Another player in the limelight will be Bosnian international centre back Jozo Simunovic.

Coming through off his breakthrough season after a lengthy injury, Simunovic has become Celtic’s number one centre back.

How Celtic do in the group stage will come down to how Simunovic performs and manages to control his defensive team mates as they need to be in sync throughout the competition.

The 23-year-old is a no-nonsense defender and is massive in stature and has been sought after by clubs such as Torino and Burnley in the past.

Celtic will be put under much more defensive pressure than they are used to in a regular domestic match so the back four will be under the cosh, but it is the more competitive games against Anderlecht in which judgements will be made.

How will Celtic do?

The Celtic team entering the Champions League group stage is different from the one which entered (just) last season.

They are a year on and with added quality in midfield with Ntcham plus the boost of having Roberts for another year, the confidence should be flowing.

No one is expecting Celtic to qualify but the difference from last year is that the fans will be looking for the team to compete and make the Europa League.

The team is playing much more mature in Europe than they were a year ago, especially in possession which, if applied properly, could be a major asset in the matches against Anderlecht.

The way Brendan Rodgers is as a winner, he will be aiming to take the major task on and qualify for the last 16 and it will be a mammoth one on the scale of making the final in Seville in 2003.

One thing is for certain and that is that Celtic Park is back open for business for three more world renowned enthralling ties with an atmosphere not many can match and it will make for an amazing spectacle of football.

It’s why we love the game.

By: @ConnorGordonn1