WHILE Celtic endured a frustrating transfer window with the loss of three of their better players, they will be comforted by the fact that their first Champions League opponents, AC Milan, are a shadow of their former selves.
The departed Kelvin Wilson, Gary Hooper and, particularly, Victor Wanyama were key components of a Celtic side which upset the odds to qualify for the last 16 of Europe’s premier club competition last year, but manager Neil Lennon was able to reinforce his squad with the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Derk Boerrigter and, finally, Teemu Pukki.
Milan also had to come through qualifying, having only made it into Serie A’s top three thanks to two goals in the final six minutes of last season away to already relegated Siena.
The seven-times European champions reached the group stage with relative ease as a 3-0 win at the San Siro sealed a 4-1 aggregate victory over PSV Eindhoven. However, the uncertainty over qualification meant that, like Celtic, Milan’s shopping in the window was left until the last minute.
Kevin-Prince Boateng, who had scored twice against PSV, was sold to Schalke to fund the purchase of Alessandro Matri, but the big news was the return of former World Player of the Year Kaka, whom they sold to Real Madrid in 2009 for £56 million. Milan didn’t pay a penny to get him back but all has not gone to plan so far.
The Rossoneri have discovered why the Brazilian was surplus to requirements in Madrid as the 31-year-old was largely ineffective in his second debut in a 2-2 draw with Torino on Saturday and has now been ruled out for up to a month with an adductor muscle injury.
He has agreed not to be paid during his absence, but this is far from the only injury worry for Milan boss Massimiliano Allegri, who has a total of nine first-team players injured.
The loss of captain and creative lynchpin Riccardo Montolivo and Italian international forward Stephan El Shaarawy are the most significant absences and heap even more pressure on the shoulders of Mario Balotelli, who has lived up to his billing since returning from Manchester City in January with 15 goals in 18 appearances.
He will be making his European debut for Milan, having been cup-tied for their last-16 defeat by Barcelona last season and Matri is also set to start, with Montolivo’s absence forcing another former City player, Robinho, into a deeper role behind the front two.
Celtic fans won’t have great memories of Matri after he scored in both legs against the Scottish champions for Juventus in last season’s competition with his clever movement in behind, causing Efe Ambrose in particular all sorts of problems.
The biggest concern for Allegri right now though is at the back. Italian international full-backs Mattia De Sciglio and Ignazio Abate will also miss out so Urby Emauelson, who had a largely ineffective loan spell with Fulham last season, and journeyman Cristian Zaccardo are set to deputise.
“Our defensive play is just not where it should be,” Allegri admitted after his side only salvaged a point at Torino thanks to a controversial late penalty. “We need to work harder. Conceding five goals in three games is just not good enough. We can’t afford to slip up against Celtic.”