Celtic enter their first competitive match of the season in ragged form, having lost all four of their pre-season games in Germany (and shipping 12 goals in the process).
Manager Neil Lennon has spoken of concerns over his side’s form ahead of the club’s first leg Champions League qualifying tie against Northern Irish part-timers Cliftonville, who host the Parkhead side at Solitude.
A number of injuries to key personnel mean that Celtic have drafted in Efe Ambrose to provide cover for a side facing a virtually full-strength Cliftonville side. Although overwhelming favourites to progress, Celtic will not be encouraged by comments made by Cliftonville defender Jamie McGovern, who suggested the Parkhead outfit may be subject to some agricultural treatment.
Celtic squad: Forster, Izaguirre, Ambrose, Wilson, Lustig, Brown, Commons, Rogic, Kayal, Samaras, Stokes, Zaluska, Balde, Forrest, Watt, Irvine, Henderson, Atajic.
Date: Wed 17 July, 2013
Venue: Solitude, Belfast
TV channel: BBC2
Cliftonville manager Tommy Breslin has no injury worries ahead of the Reds’ tie against Celtic.
Celtic are likely to be without Joe Ledley, Charlie Mulgrew, Adam Matthews, and new recruit Virgil van Dijk through injury, while Gary Hooper is also expected to be missing because of a groin strain. The striker has been the subject of a determined pursuit by Championship side QPR, who recently increased their bid for the Englishman to aroiund £4.5 million. Victor Wanyama left Parkhead last week to sign for Southampton for a record £12.5 million. New signing Steven Mouyokolo, whose recruitment was confirmed yesterday, will not feature.
Cliftonville to win: 12/1
Celtic to win: 2/9
Cliftonville to qualify 14/1
Marc Smyth v Georgios Samaras
A defender with some pedigree, Smyth scored the winning penalty for Airdrie United in the 2008 Scottish Challenge Cup final against Ross County. The 30-year-old must call on all his experience if he is to have any chance of keeping Samaras quiet.
With a question mark hanging over Gary Hooper’s future at the club, the onus will be on Samaras to come up with the goods in front of goal. The striker was on target during last year’s qualifiers against HJK Helsinki and Helsingborg and will be hoping for a repeat this time.
Barry Johnston v Kris Commons
Holding midfielder Johnston is in his third spell with Cliftonville and has scored in European qualification before. Similar exploits would be welcome against Celtic, but Johnston serves Cliftonville best by destroying the moves of the opposition.
Commons was one of Celtic’s better performers last season and will be hoping to top those displays this term. The attacking midfielder weighed in with 19 goals but his ability to create opportunities for team-mates will be just as important as his own goal threat.
Liam Boyce v Kelvin Wilson
Last season’s leading scorer in the Northern Irish top flight, Boyce returned to Solitude in January 2012 following a failed move to the Bundesliga with Werder Bremen. On home soil he was prolific once again, scoring 29 goals to seal the title last term.
With Efe Ambrose having had just one day’s training and Charlie Mulgrew and Virgil van Dijk both injured, Wilson will be called upon to ensure the Hoops’ defence is rock-solid. However, with 12 goals conceded in pre-season matches, an improvement will be needed in terms of the rearguard.