Spartak Moscow v Celtic: Sterner test awaits Celtic
AWAY form has often proved the undoing of Celtic in the Uefa Champions League – they have never won on their travels in the group stage – and while Neil Lennon acknowledged just how difficult it is to return with three points from a trip abroad, he believes his side are capable of doing just that after they have faced Spartak Moscow in the Luzhniki Stadium this evening.
“Away from home in the Champions League is the toughest game you can get in football,” Lennon told Celtic’s website on his arrival in Moscow for their second Group G fixture. “We are aware our record is not so great – but records are there to be improved upon.”
Under Lennon, Celtic recorded creditable draws away to Rennes and Udinese, and in qualifying for the group phase of this season’s competition, they beat HJK Helsinki in Finland and Helsingborgs in Sweden. The Celtic manager is under no illusions how hard it will be to shock Spartak on their own patch – an artificial pitch the Russians are comfortable playing on but he is relishing the challenge.
“We played well in Helsinki and Helsingborgs and it’s given us a lot to be encouraged about,” said Lennon. “It’s our first foray away in the Champions League group stages and we want to give a good account of ourselves and make the game as competitive as we can. We know it’s going to be very tough,” he added. “Spartak Moscow are an excellent side with an excellent coach. Going forward, they have players who are very quick, strong and skilful. They are very rigid in the way they play.
“But we are coming into the game in good form. Our away form in Europe has been pretty good recently, but this is a real step up for us in terms of class and competition. We will have to stop their forward players getting in between the lines and hurting us. We will have to defend well and counter-attack as best we can.
“All the pressure was in the qualification and the games against Helsinki and Helsingborgs. Now the expectation is less than it would have been, but I suppose if you are playing well – and we got off to a decent start in the group – then the expectation levels start to build again.
A “decent” start would surely mean at least avoiding defeat against Spartak, although a victory would give Celtic an excellent chance of securing second spot – with Barcelona long odds-on to win the group. Celtic’s next two fixtures are back-to-back meetings with the Catalan giants on 23 October (away) and 7 November (home). Celtic performed with credit in their opening Champions League fixture a fortnight ago against Benfica – a 0-0 draw which marked a debut in the group stage for all of the starting XI except Scott Brown. Since then, Celtic have enjoyed back-to-back wins in the SPL against Dundee and Motherwell to claim top spot, and beaten Raith Rovers 4-1, with Gary Hooper scoring six goals in those three matches.
Lennon’s main injury worry is Adam Matthews. The Wales right-back missed Saturday’s 2-0 win at Motherwell after injuring his ankle. Matthews travelled to Moscow with his foot in a protective cast but Lennon, ahead of training last night, is not optimistic of him taking part, while striker Lassad Nouioui is definitely out with a calf injury.
Lennon also believes the artificial surface at the Luzhniki Stadium will not cause his side any difficulties. “We will have a look at the pitch [at training] but I don’t think it will be a problem because we played in Helsinki and that experience will benefit us going into the game,” said Lennon.
After the hard-fought point in their first group game at home against Benfica, Brown is looking for Celtic to go one better against the Russian side.
He said: “I think we played well at home (against Benfica), I think we were unlucky that we didn’t create as many chances as we would like to have done.
“We have players in the team who can score: Kris Commons who is dangerous from 20 yards out, and Gary Hooper is on form as well. We have had a few away victories in Europe this season and hopefully we can take that form into this game as well.”
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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