How Celtic can beat Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League

Celtic face Paris Saint-Germain at Celtic Park in their first Champions League match. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty ImagesCeltic face Paris Saint-Germain at Celtic Park in their first Champions League match. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Celtic face Paris Saint-Germain at Celtic Park in their first Champions League match. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Celtic have been widely written off ahead of their Champions League clash with Paris Saint-Germain but they can spring a surprise, writes Joel Sked.

Many may have clicked on this article thinking or saying out loud “they can’t”. While understandable opinion, Celtic can. A win over the Qatari-owned star-studded Ligue 1 leaders may be unlikely but it is neither impossible or improbable.

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Celtic have history in their favour. Since 2001 the Hoops have defeated the following at Celtic Park in the Champions League: Porto, Juventus, Basel, Lyon, Anderlecht Shakhtar Donetsk (x2), Benfica (x2), Manchester United, AC Milan, Villarreal, Braga, Barcelona, Spartak Moscow, Ajax, plus many more less celebrated sides.

Although it should be noted that the financial difference is now a chasm as opposed to a gap as it was at the start of the century.

Writing in his column in the Daily Mail Kris Commons said: “I honestly believe this PSG side might well be a more frightening proposition than the Barcelona side Celtic played - and, of course, beat - in 2012.”

It may be a viewpoint swayed by the money spent by the Parisians but it is a viewpoint which, respectfully, is wrong.

Trust the system which beat Astana

Celtic were superb in the first-half against Hamilton Academical on Friday night with the returning Patrick Roberts and new boy Odsonne Edouard. Quizzed after the game about his thoughts on Tuesday’s game Brendan Rodgers was forthright with his answer, he already knew his team to play PSG. The 4-1 had little bearing.

Celtic’s best performance this season was the 5-0 thumping of Astana at Celtic Park. The team were 4-4-1-1 out of possession and 3-4-2-1 in possession. It was a fluid system and players knew their roles.

However, with a lack of centre-back options there is a choice to be made as to who should partner Jozo Simunovic in the defence. Rodgers could stick with Bitton and go with the XI which beat the Kazakhstan champions, or alternatively play Kieran Tierney and Mikael Lustig as the wide centre-backs and bring Jonny Hayes in for a surprise inclusion.

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The Irishman has the dependability, knowledge and pace to play the dual left-back/wing-back role. For Aberdeen he was highly impressive in both positions when he was required. It would be a big call for Rodgers.

Stop the counter-attack

“Their strengths are obvious to most and it’s their forwards. A likely front line of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe should put the fear in most teams across Europe as much as anyone. The depth, Julian Draxler, Javier Pastore and Lucas Moura (Angel Di Maria is injured), is frankly frightening,” said French football writer Nathan Staples.

“With the pace of Mbappe and Neymar, they will be incredibly dangerous on the counter attack. Should Celtic get a little too adventurous in the game, expect them to be heavily punished.”

It is clear PSG are weighted towards the top of the pitch. That is where their best talent is amassed. Their world class front three netted 95 goals between them last season, albeit at three different clubs.

Out of possession Celtic should defend with a deep, narrow block, two banks of four with little space between the lines, forcing PSG wide and back. A basic approach for most sides.

In possession Celtic will show ambition and bravery, commit men forward and attack, it’s their nature under Rodgers. Not only has the addition of Olivier Ntcham given Celtic a fine passer of the ball but also added solidity.

In the fluid system, Ntcham and Brown act as a block in front of a back three. It allows both wing-backs to provide width, while offering protection from the counter-attack, meaning Celtic have at least five players back at most times.

Target Thiago Motta

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PSG have two main weaknesses, one of which is in the centre of midfield. They tried and failed to recruit Monaco’s Fabinho and lost Blaise Matuidi to Juventus. It means that they are relying on the waning powers of Thiago Motta to protect an inconsistent defence.

“The defence has been shaky, with doubts of Thiago Silva’s viability and two young centre-backs in Marquinhos and Presnel Kimpembe not quite having the experience yet to take over,” said Staples.

“Their midfield is a little barren, despite the real quality of both Adrien Rabiot and Marco Verratti. Thiago Motta is slowing down rapidly, there’s little cover behind him and often they can look at odds against good sides.”

When Celtic have the ball in the aforementioned system, Scott Sinclair becomes a second number 10 alongside Tom Rogic. A classy midfielder he may be, Motta, however, lacks the ‘legs’ to cover a lot of ground, especially when faced with a dual threat. It could lead PSG defenders stepping out to help, opening more space for the runs of Leigh Griffiths.

Encourage Griffiths to shoot

Speaking of Griffiths, the striker will fancy his chances against either of PSG’s goalkeepers.

Staples said: “The club have also failed to sort out the goalkeeping situation and are stuck with two shaky customers. Both Kevin Trapp and Alphonse Areola have shown they have ability in the past but both are equally adept at losing concentration and making a big mistake.”

Neither goalkeeper has impressed sufficiently to earn the recognition as the club’s number one. In their 5-1 win over Metz, Areola made a comical mistake which should have led to a goal.

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What Rodgers should be doing, not that Griffiths requires it, is encouraging his forward to have a shoot-on-sight policy. Griffiths is adept at taking shots early, from various angles, with little back-lift and a lot of accuracy.

The more pressure exerted on whichever goalkeeper is between the sticks the more fruitful it will be for the home side.

Set Brown loose on Verratti

One of the great facets of Brown’s make-up is the respect, or lack of, he gives opposition players. He goes out on to the field with little care in world, almost looking down on players he comes up against.

He has been a pest to many of the great names in European football, including Neymar who worked the dark arts to get Brown sent off in a previous encounter.

Apart from the front three, PSG’s main man is Marco Verratti. He was one of the key targets for Barcelona the summer past. The Italian is supremely confident in his ability, the way he holds the ball in dangerous areas, slinking away from challenges and opening up the game.

He takes risks and is a petulant character, however. The perfect combination for Brown to go hunting and get close to him, put pressure on him, pester him.

Crowd influence

The impact of the Celtic Park atmosphere on a Champions League night is overstated in terms of the effect it has on the opposition. It is neither intimidating or a ‘cauldron’.

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Many of the players will have sampled playing Turkish opposition at some point in their career, in Italy or in South America where atmospheres can be described as ‘baying’ or ‘red hot’. You will be hard-pushed to find a less intimidating song than ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.

However, what the Celtic Park crowd can do is inspire. Commons told a story of when Neil Lennon was boss: “He stood silent in the middle of the changing room, put his finger to his lips and pointed to the ceiling. We stood in silence listening to the noise of the Celtic fans singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. I’d never heard it sung so loud.

“When the rendition was over he simply said: ‘Use it’.”

In full supportive voice the Celtic fans can lift the players above their station. What the fans can’t do is get over-anxious and expectant. Celtic won’t have anywhere near as much of the ball as they do in domestic action, patience will be a virtue and noise a stimulus.