FOR Kris Commons, the pain he experiences when reflecting on Celtic’s limp defeat by Ajax in their last Champions League outing runs particularly deep.
Pushed perhaps too quickly back into action after injury, he knows he was one of the players Neil Lennon had in mind when the manager commented afterwards that there were certain individuals who knew they could have produced more on the night.
Commons admits that he didn’t play much better against Aberdeen on Saturday – “I was probably Aberdeen’s best player for 85 minutes. Passing-wise I had my eyes in the wrong sockets,” he remarked, having also scored two goals – but tomorrow is when the stakes are raised to a completely new level, as Celtic return to Champions League action.
Commons is aware that he and his team-mates cannot secure the victory they need without being at their peak against AC Milan. It is an opportunity to atone for the wasted opportunity in Amsterdam, to deliver a form of payback to the fans in what is a must-win encounter for the home side, whose ambitions of qualifying for the last 16 – and possibly even the Europa League – hinge on victory.
Commons remains agitated by events at the Amsterdam ArenA, when a large travelling contingent of Celtic fans were let down by a weak performance in the 1-0 defeat. He ranks this as perhaps the worst Celtic performance he can remember being part of in Europe, rivalled only by an “off-colour” showing against Benfica in Lisbon last year.
On a bracing night both on and off the pitch in the Dutch capital, Celtic struggled to make any headway against their youthful opponents, and were hampered by Commons’ lack of match fitness and poor personal performances elsewhere in attack and midfield. Lennon later accused his players of being “nervous and careless” in unusually critical remarks about his own team in public.
“That is the first game and probably the only game where we’ve underachieved European-wise,” said Commons. “I think we’ve always produced our best football on European nights, so that was a disappointing aspect.
“A lot of fans paid a lot of money to get over there, they travelled and we need to do these fans justice. People pay a lot of money to come and watch us away from home.”
Commons is aware that these same supporters are central to their ambitions at home, where teams of Milan’s class and reputation have stumbled many times before amid the intensity of a Champions League night at Celtic Park. “The fans play a massive part and AC Milan will be aware that we’ve beaten Barcelona here, we’ve beaten Ajax here, we gave Benfica a game here,” he said. “Ultimately, however, the fans don’t win the game. We’ve got to be right at it.”
The fact that Celtic still remain in the equation to qualify for the last 16 is remarkable considering the quality of player that has departed since last season. Lennon’s side know they must take their chances tomorrow if they are to secure the win required. How they wish they still had Gary Hooper to snaffle up chances.
Anthony Stokes will make a return tomorrow, after being allowed time off at the weekend to deal with a family issue. However, Stokes has not scored a European goal this season.
Who else can Celtic rely on to get goals? Derk Boerrigter has experience of Champions League football and scored for Ajax against Real Madrid last season. His goal on Saturday against Aberdeen was a welcome sign that he is returning to sharpness following a difficult start to his Celtic career. Teemu Pukki, meanwhile, is beginning to labour again – Saturday was his 11th appearance without a goal since scoring against St Johnstone in September.
While Commons sympathises with the Finn’s struggles to burrow into the affections of the Celtic support, it is perhaps harder for him to empathise with the Finn, who has certainly not hit the road running in his new career at Celtic. After all, Commons scored within a few minutes of his debut in a League Cup semi-final against Aberdeen with a shot from outside the area. He does predict better times ahead for Pukki, however, as Celtic aim to replace what has gone, something Commons knows hasn’t been easy.
“It’s difficult because in theory we lost our best attacking player, our best goal threat, we lost our middle man that made us who we were last year,” said Commons, with reference to the summer departures, when Celtic lost not only Hooper, but also Victor Wanyama, who joined his former team-mate in the English Premier League.
“It’s hard to replace a player like Gary but the people who have come here are just finding their feet. It’s taken Teemu a little bit longer, like Amido [Balde]. We’re not going to be exactly the same team or the same sort of set-up as what we were last year.
“We’re looking for something new and rebuilding, and it does take time sometimes with foreign players. He [Pukki] is still young, still figuring out the game and the Scottish game is played at a high tempo. You don’t really get a lot of time on the ball and you have to make decisions fast.
“It’s probably something that he’s not used to. We’ve seen numerous DVDs and videos and the manager has seen him so many times playing for Finland at international level. We know he can do it at that level, it’s just putting it into practice, into training and then seeing him perform week in, week out at club level. But there is no doubt he will do that.”
Commons was asked whether Pukki might be better suited to European nights. “There are certain players that do suit Champions League football,” he said. “You do generally get a little bit more time on the ball. There are usually waves of possession, so it’s vitally important that we take advantage of how much ball we actually get.
“It’s still wide open,” he added, with reference to the situation in Group H. “The bottom three, apart from Barcelona who have run away with it, we’re all within one win of each other. So if we do manage to get the win that we’re looking to do then it’s wide open again.”
Commons refused to pay too much heed to Milan’s surprisingly poor start to the league season. Saturday’s home draw with Genoa, in which Mario Balotelli missed a penalty, dropped the Italian side to 11th place in Serie A. “The Champions League is a completely different kettle of fish to league form and playing against opposition that you are used to,” he said.
“I think they’ll find it difficult to come and play football here, as many teams do. But that doesn’t mean they’ll find it hard from a stadium point of view.
“We usually give them a good game – we usually perform to a very high standard against everyone who comes here.”