RONNY Deila’s Celtic will face Slovenian side NK Maribor tomorrow night in the first of two legs at the Ljudski vrt stadium that will decide who will make the Champions League group stages.
After two humbling defeats to Legia Warsaw that saw them stumble out of the Champions League qualifiers, Celtic came under intense scrutiny as their annual firesale of prized assets became a focus of fans’ criticism. But a reprieve from Uefa and the Court of Arbitration for Sport will now see Celtic face NK Maribor instead of Legia after the Polish side fielded an ineligible player. Pundits have been quick to dismiss NK Maribor as an inferior side to the Poles, but their key players are still capable of damaging Celtic’s Champions League aspirations.
Celtic’s sitting midfielders - whether it’s Stefan Johansen, Charlie Mulgrew, Nir Biton or Beram Kayal - will have to keep a close eye on the player Maribor manager Zlatko Zahovic claims was pursued by the Scottish champions this summer. The 25-year-old Macedonian scored against Rangers when the sides met in Europa League qualification three years ago, and was voted the Slovenia top flight’s player of the year in 2012/13. Displaying terrific technique and close control, the No 10 is a threat as both a playmaker and a goalscorer.
With Efe Ambrose suspended, Ronny Deila may be pushed into starting on-loan Manchester City youngster Jason Denayer. Should Denayar play, he’ll have to quickly live up to his great potential by keeping Marcos Tavares quiet. The Brazilian has been at the club since 2008 and is Maribor’s all-time leading goalscorer. An exceptionally skillful player, he asserts himself on proceedings by demanding the football from team-mates and going at the opposition. Stopping him from scoring over the two legs will be no easy task.
Likely to be Tavares’ partner in attack, the French striker is finally getting his career on track after a bad spell with injuries. Maribor took a chance on the player at the beginning of last season and the gamble is paying dividends, with Mendy scoring into double figures in the league. At 6ft 3in, the forward likes to use his imposing physique to bully opposing defenders.
Looking to supply Mendy with crosses to attack in the penalty area is 22-year-old Damjan Bohar. The Slovenian starred for Maribor last season after moving from Mura 05 when the latter club went out of business. Similar in style to his opposite number Callum McGregor, Bohar likes to drift inside a lot and will be expected to trouble the opposition full-backs. Emilio Izaguirre may wish to curb some of those enthusiastic forays into the opposition half.
It isn’t clear whether the towering Slovenian international will start in midfield or defence, but Celtic will surely be impressed that their opponents have a player who combines size and technical ability in the mold of Virgil van Dijk. At 6ft 4in, he may look like little more than an old-school enforcer, but once the game starts he is more than capable of dictating the tempo of the match. Pressing and denying him the time to do so will be of paramount importance to Celtic.