After a domestic clean sweep last season, Brendan Rodgers has guided Celtic back into the group stages of the Champions League for a second successive season, where they were drawn against German giants Bayern Munich, French bourgeois side Paris Saint-Germain and Belgian champions Anderlecht. A tall order for the Scottish champions, but one everyone at the club will relish.
Ahead of the group stage kicking off, Craig John Shields takes a close look at Celtic and their expectations of progressing in the competition this season.
The rejuvenated Scott Sinclair has been Celtic’s top man so far this season, scoring five of Celtic’s goals in the Hoops’ Champions League qualifying campaign and will be a key figure in the group stages, along with captain Scott Brown and his pairing with French Under-21 star Olivier Ntcham, who has impressed since joining the Scottish champions in July.
Celtic also welcomed back talisman Patrick Roberts this week on a season-long loan deal from Manchester City for a second spell in Glasgow. His performances against his parent club in the Champions League proved how much of a threat Roberts could be and his attacking threat could be crucial for Celtic.
The jewel in the Celtic crown though has to be left back Kieran Tierney. Since breaking into the team under ex-Celtic boss Ronnie Deila, the 20-year-old has not looked back. Picking up team and individual awards at a canter for not just his defensive play but also his attacking instinct, culminating a few weeks back when he became the club’s youngest ever captain.
Tierney is already attracting interest across Europe but, like so many that come through the Celtic ranks, he has green and white running through his blood and representing his boyhood team in the Champions League will make it nigh-on impossible for clubs to take him away from Celtic Park at present.
Up until the last match of Champions League qualification, Celtic hadn’t conceded a goal. However, a rough night in Kazakhstan where the Scottish champions conceded four against Astana showed that the centre of defence is still an area that Brendan Rodgers needs to reinforce if Celtic are to have any hope of reaching the latter stages of the Champions League.
Injuries haven’t helped though, with Dedryk Boyata and Erik Sviatchenko out with long term issues. Add in the fact that Celtic’s one remaining natural centre-back Jozo Simunovic has a long standing knee problem that needs to be nursed and Celtic are desperately short of cover.
Able stand-ins Nir Bitton and youngster Kristoffer Ajer saw the Hoops come through against Astana - but not without more than a few scares. Now that Celtic are in the Champions League Group Stages, the quality of opposition is set to immeasurably improve. There’s no ifs, buts or maybes, Celtic simply have to strengthen the centre of their defence before PSG come to town on matchday one.
Style of Play
Celtic’s pressing and possession style is one the Scottish game has had to adapt to, and, so far, has failed to, with Celtic sweeping all before them domestically last season. This year will be a good test for Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic though and after a year of refinement, the Hoops could be ready to spring a few shocks.
When going forward Kieran Tierney is given a licence to push on, often giving Scott Sinclair the freedom to roam inside and link up play with Celtic’s lone front man - likely to be Dembele when the Frenchman is back from injury.
Rodgers’ 4-2-3-1 sees Scott Brown fill in when the likes of Tierney move forward, providing Celtic with an anchor to stop counter-attacks. Further forward, Celtic’s riches in the centre of midfield allows them to change depending on the opposition, with Ntcham, McGregor, Armstrong and Rogic providing a blend of power, pace, directness and finesse when required. Although, apart from last year’s Champions League Group Stage appearances, most are relatively untested against the continent’s best sides.
Despite the side’s mini-collapse in Astana, Celtic’s system looks conducive to catching teams away from home, especially when opponents look to dominate possession. With pace on the wings in the form of Sinclair and Forrest, combined with the finishing talents of either Dembele or Griffiths, and after draws away to Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach last season, Celtic could be competitive away from home.
Chances of Progression
Celtic find themselves in a tough group, with five-times winners Bayern Munich and Neymar’s Paris Saint Germain immediately standing in the Hoops way. Belgian side Anderlecht joins the group and will be seen as conquerable opposition in the eyes of most Celtic fans.
So, if third spot and a place in the Europa League seems like a reasonable objective for Celtic, what chance do they have of making the last 16 of the Champions League? Honestly, not much.
However, with 60,000 people behind them at Celtic Park and a side that has the ability to score goals away from home, should PSG and Bayern underestimate the Hoops, you wouldn’t put it past them to gain a few results against the mega clubs. If Celtic can gain momentum from positive results against PSG and Anderlecht in their opening two matches, then anything’s possible.