CHANGE need not always mean being short-changed. The narrative of Celtic’s Champions League qualifying campaign was all about coping with loss. The loss of Gary Hooper, Victor Wanyama and Kelvin Wilson.
Yet, over time, gains may also be had from the summer transfer movement at the Scottish champions. When first introduced to the press and asked to describe their strengths, both winger Derk Boerrigter and striker Teemu Pukki homed in on their pace. Hooper, despite his many fine attributes, would not have done likewise when meeting the media in Norwich. The ability to break quickly and turn defence into attack can be a potentially game-changing asset in assignments such as Celtic’s Group H opener against AC Milan at San Siro on Wednesday. The point is not lost on the Parkhead manager.
“Yeah, we’ve got pace, with Boerrigter, [James] Forrest, when he is fit, [Georgios] Samaras,” said Neil Lennon. “Listen, pace is very important in the Champions League. It’s something we really focused on last year, particularly defensively – [Efe] Ambrose and Wilson, and our full-backs, [Mikael] Lustig, [Adam] Matthews and Emilio [Izaguirre]. [It was important] away from home, particularly against Barcelona.
“Boerrigter is an interesting one because we haven’t had a quick leftie for a while and he is prepared to go in behind people. If he’s fit and flying then I think he will be useful on the counter-attack in Europe. He’s got the European experience as well. Pukki is very experienced at international and club level [with Finland and Schalke] and I think he will be a good player for us.”
While Samaras can boast a goal in the Nou Camp – a header that came within seconds of earning Celtic an improbable point – only Boerrigter in the Celtic squad would fancy he had a card to play that could trump the Greek. The former Ajax man bagged a goal against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu for the Dutch club last December. Indeed, of those Lennon could select on Wednesday, only Scott Brown and Samaras have racked up more outings in the Champions League.
Lennon, speaking before he watched Milan away to Torino last night, admitted the game might come “a bit early for a couple” of his new arrivals. Midfielder Nir Biton has still to feature for his new club, while Pukki made a scoring debut from the bench yesterday at Tynecastle. Yet, although Virgil van Dijk and Boerrigter have only made a handful of appearances, the Celtic manager said the Dutch pair have “settled in” while “the core I have, I can trust”.
Lennon is emboldened by last season’s victory in Moscow, his first away win in the group stage after six campaigns as a Celtic employee. It means there is no sense of hopelessness even when the grandees of the European game lie in wait. “The players have the bit between their teeth, too,” he said. “They don’t have any real fear or nerves over going to these places. They are all experienced international players. I’m going to Milan to get an idea of how they play but we’ve no reason to not be confident of getting something.”
Lennon said he and his men “have to have the belief they can qualify” from a section that also includes Barcelona and Ajax. Yet, he also accepts that this season’s group is more daunting than last season’s, and that Hooper, Wanyama and Wilson are not instantly replaceable. Qualifying for the last 16, as they did in 2012-13, “would be almost impossible to emulate”, Lennon said.
With this week in mind, it does not cause the manager anxiety that their exhilarating run in the competition last season was ended in slap-in-the-face fashion by another Italian team, Juventus. His respect for Milan does not extend to talking tosh about them. Understandably, he does not see Milan, who finished third in Serie A, as a match for two-times champions Juve, the opponents that handed Celtic a 5-0 aggregate loss – the club’s heaviest such defeat in European competition.
“I think Juventus are stronger,” insisted Lennon. “They are clearly the best team in Italy. Milan are in a transitional phase from where they were under Carlo Ancelotti and that great team they had in the mid-part of the last decade. They are younger and seem to have put a bit more emphasis on youth. But they still have bags of quality. Most Italian teams are physically strong and very good athletically. I don’t want to tempt fate but I don’t think they are as strong as Juve are currently.”
Lennon may be heartened, to a degree, by his experiences as a Celtic player at San Siro. His last European outing for the club came there in March 2007, when the now-returned Kaka netted in extra time to take Milan through to the quarter-finals 1-0 on aggregate after a courageous display by Gordon Strachan’s side. Two and a half years earlier, Martin O’Neill’s Celtic were tied 1-1 with Milan going into the closing stages.
“You always think of the ones that got away. The one with Martin it was one-each with two or three minutes to go and we end up losing 3-1 and we played really well second half. The one with Gordon in the last 16 could have gone either way, it was just so tight for so long. In the end Milan, looking at them at the end of the tie, it gave them a massive lift and they went on to win the Champions League that year, so it gives me a lot of encouragement.”
The aforementioned O’Neill is being heavily touted to fill the Republic of Ireland vacancy created by the departure of coach Giovanni Trapattoni. Lennon believes the appointment of his long-time mentor and fellow Northern Irishman to the post would make sense. “He would relate to the support for a start. I thought Trapattoni did a brilliant job. To get to the Euros with the squad he had at his disposal was fantastic considering Ireland had been a little bit in the doldrums for a few years. I think there is a lot for Martin, if he does take the job, to work on. It could suit him in terms of his personal side of things and if there is a right age, he’s very experienced now and managing Ireland would mean a lot to him personally. What he will bring is a presence and charisma to the job. Trapattoni was full of that but Martin is Martin, he’ll raise the decibel level in the place to concerted levels.”
Succeeding where O’Neill fell short in northern Italy would further raise Lennon’s managerial stature, meanwhile.
Just five wins from 51 group-stage away games
IT IS easy to illustrate the scale of the task facing Celtic on Wednesday as they seek to pull off a shock win at the San Siro. Played 51, won five. That surely does it succinctly. The 51 figure is the number of away group games played by Scottish teams in the 21 completed
editions of the Champions League.
Of course, Celtic manager Neil Lennon will not want the sins of other teams visited on his current side. They can point to the fact their away record reads played three and won one after their dramatic 3-2 away victory against Spartak Moscow in October last year. That was Celtic’s first success on the road in the competition proper following an 18-game run that had brought 17 defeats and one draw. It also brought the away record of Scottish clubs (Celtic and Rangers, to be more accurate) round full circle. The first Scottish away win also came in Moscow, a 1-0 defeat of CSKA
by Walter Smith’s Rangers in December 1992, in the first Champions League with a group stage.
Smith also guided Rangers to a 3-0 victory over Lyon six years ago, which was the last Scottish away win before Celtic’s Moscow triumph. Then there were only two sections, in contrast to the eight-group format of today.
Famously, in that campaign, Smith’s side were unbeaten in their six group games.
In between Smith’s two spells, Dick Advocaat’s Rangers side also recorded two away wins, a 1-0 win over his former club PSV Eindhoven in September 1999 and, a year later, Monaco were beaten by the same scoreline. Advocaat, above, is the only manager of a Scottish club other than Smith to claim two away group stage wins.
In 30 away group games,
Rangers have notched four wins and nine draws, meaning almost half their games brought some return. In contrast, Celtic’s ratio is effectively one in ten. To put a more positive spin on their efforts, they have at least ensured that Scotland has had a representative at the top table of European club football in 16 years out of a
Their bleak ratio of away failures puts in context just what a formidable home record Celtic have built up since, on three occasions, it has allowed them to progress to the last 16. Only once in 21 home group games has any visiting side overcome them. Yet Lennon knows a better balance must be struck for
“I want to improve our away record. I don’t want to keep relying on the home record because, eventually, that’s going to go. Eventually, the more you play in this competition, it’s just natural that you are going to drop points at home, or maybe lose a game. So I think it is important we look at our away form and try and improve that.”
There is certainly bags of room for improvement, even after an 11-year hoodoo was broken 11 months ago.