CELTIC manager Neil Lennon last night shrouded his team selection in mystery for the club’s Champions League group opener away to AC Milan this evening by refusing to endorse the claims of Anthony Stokes for a starting place.
The 25-year-old Irishman has taken up the mantle of chief goal source for the Scottish champions in the wake of Gary Hooper’s summer departure, with four strikes in three league games – the last of these netted in the course of a stand-out performance that secured a 3-1 win away to Hearts at Tynecastle only four days ago.
Stokes has declared himself in the best shape of his three-year Celtic career. And, after an ankle injury deprived the Dubliner of any game-time in the club’s run to the last 16 of the Champions League last season, his current form was expected to earn him a first outing in the group stages at the San Siro home of the seven-time European champions.
However, when it was put to the Celtic manager that Stokes’ recent exploits meant he could not be left out for tonight’s assignment, he would only state coyly: “That is a good question.”
Lennon provided a further possible indication that Stokes might be in line for a crushing omission by offering exactly the same response over suggestions that new signing Teemu Pukki couldn’t have had enough minutes on the pitch for his new club to be considered for a start against Milan. The Finnish internationalist only debuted in the closing minutes at Tynecastle. He was able to mark his first appearance with a goal following a £3 million move from Schalke because fine play by Stokes presented him with a gimme.
Influencing Lennon’s thinking about his best option for the central striker role could be what he witnessed first hand after flying to Italy to watch Milan scramble a 2-2 draw away to Verona on Saturday night. The depleted defence Massimiliano Allegri was forced to field twice showed their vulnerability to quick counter-attacks to find themselves 2-0 down.
While Georgios Samaras and Derek Boerrigter are expected to produce direct, powerful running down the flanks for Celtic this evening, Pukki more than Stokes would offer this through the middle. “We’ve got plenty of pace so you’re hoping to use that to your advantage, but what I want is to try to get a foothold in the game, have a fair share of possession and take it from there,” said the manager.
Lennon has a line-up in his mind but knocks suffered by Adam Matthews and Joe Ledley could affect his thinking. “We’re just waiting on one or two letting us know how they feel,” he said. “That might change things a little bit but in the main we know what the team’s going to be.”
James Forrest was ruled out yesterday morning before the players flew out to Milan. The winger missed the win over Hearts on Saturday with an ongoing sciatica problem but has also taken ill and was absent when the squad met up at Glasgow Airport.
Whatever the personnel, Lennon believes he has players who can rise to an occasion such as they will face in the San Siro tonight. Trepidation has been banished by the ability of his team to hold their own in the Nou Camp last season and come within seconds of earning a point and the fact a first group stage victory in the club’s history was secured away to Spartak Moscow.
“The team is full of international players who have played for their countries for quite a while now so they’ve been up against this type of opposition before. The campaign last year showed me that we can handle it. For being a youngish side there’s plenty of experience in it,” Lennon said.
Mario Balotelli v Virgil Van Dijk
Celtic’s summer signing Van Dijk has taken some time to settle but he has shown flashes of talent and class in defence and also promises to be a goal threat. However, it will be his defensive duties that will be put to the test against the enigmatic Balotelli. The former Manchester City player has undoubted talent and also has the ability to come up with something special just when he looks at his most uninterested.
Sulley Muntari v Scott Brown
Manager Neil Lennon has been thrilled with the form of Celtic skipper Brown. Free from the injuries of last season, the Scotland midfielder has been at his driving best for club and country. It will take an equally hard-working 90 minutes to impose himself against the AC Milan midfield, in which Muntari will feature. With Kaka out injured against Celtic, former Portsmouth and Sunderland man Muntari staked his claim for a place with a late goal in the 2-2 draw against Torino on Saturday.
Philippe Mexes v Teemu Pukki
The Finnish international will be a controversial pick if he’s chosen ahead of Anthony Stokes because he’s only had 16 minutes of action for Celtic. But he scored at Hearts on Saturday and offers pace in attack. Mexes has seen a number of his fellow defenders drop out through injury, so there is much responsibility on the experienced France defender.
CELTIC’S SAN SIRO RECORD
19 February, 1969 European Cup quarter-final, first leg
AC Milan 0 Celtic 0
Jock Stein’s side became the first British club to avoid defeat in the famous old stadium.
6 May, 1970 European Cup final
Celtic 1 Feyenoord 2
Feyenoord fought back from Tommy Gemmell’s opener, Ove Kindvall’s winner coming four minutes before the end of extra time.
5 April, 1972 European Cup semi-final, first leg
Inter Milan 0 Celtic 0
An injury to Jim Brogan forced Stein to give 19-year-old Pat McCluskey his European debut in only his third first-team appearance.
29 September, 2004 Champions League group stage
AC Milan 3 Celtic 1
Martin O’Neill’s hopes of taking Celtic into the last 16 were dashed when Milan scored twice in the final two minutes after Stan Varga’s equaliser had looked like giving the Celts their first-ever away point in the Champions League.
7 March, 2007 Champions League round of 16, second leg
AC Milan 1 Celtic 0
After holding the Italian giants for over three hours, Brazilian genius Kaka – now back with the Rossoneri – scored the only goal in the third minute of extra time
4 December, 2007 Champions League group stage
AC Milan 1 Celtic 0
Filippo Inzaghi beat Gerd Muller’s record of 63 European goals when he scored in the 70th minute, but Celtic still qualified for the last 16 when Benfica lost at home to Shakhtar Donetsk.