Celtic still hope to upset Champions League odds

Celtic's Georgios Samaras tries to force the ball past Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes. Picture: Robert Perry
Celtic's Georgios Samaras tries to force the ball past Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes. Picture: Robert Perry
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It is a Champions League group in which the odds were stacked against Celtic from the start. After losing their first two matches without scoring a goal, the numbers make even more foreboding reading for Neil Lennon’s men in their quest to reach the last 16 of the tournament for a second successive year.

After Tuesday night’s 1-0 defeat by Barcelona at Celtic Park, which relegated the Scottish champions to the bottom of Group H, they are priced as long as 33-1 to recover the situation and make it to the knockout phase.

In terms of results, it is Celtic’s poorest start to a Champions League group since 2004. In that campaign, they lost their first three games and went on to finish bottom of the pile behind AC Milan, Barcelona and Shakhtar Donetsk.

If anything, this season’s tournament has delivered an even more devilishly difficult section for Celtic to negotiate with Barcelona and Milan joined by another multiple European Cup and Champions League winning club in Ajax.

It is the forthcoming double-header against the Dutch champions – at Celtic Park on 22 October and then in Amsterdam on 6 November – which will determine whether Lennon’s side can genuinely revitalise their hopes of further progress in the elite tournament, or will simply have to settle for a scrap for third place in the group and relocation to the Europa League post-Christmas.

There have been aspects of both their performances so far, in losing 2-0 to Milan in Italy on matchday one and again against top seeds Barca on Tuesday, which have been highly encouraging from a Celtic perspective.

Although disappointed by the results, the Celtic players remain upbeat about their competitiveness in arguably the tournament’s toughest group this season.

According to left-back Emilio Izaguirre, Celtic are now better equipped to cope at Champions League level than they were 12 months ago.

The Honduran insists they are capable of winning their next three games – the back-to-back Ajax fixtures are followed by Milan’s visit to Glasgow on 26 November – to roar firmly back into contention.

“The next two games at Celtic Park and in Amsterdam are very important,” said the 27-year-old.

“Win both of these matches against Ajax and we still have a very big chance to get the second place in the group and make it back as one of the best 16 in the Champions League.

“If we took the six points from the next two matches, we would then go into the match against AC Milan at Celtic Park with a big chance for us to also beat them at home.

“We faced a terrific Barcelona team and most people watching the game could see that we were quite unlucky in the end to lose because we went down to ten players, so we’ll feel we can get results against Ajax and Milan.

“Getting nine points from the next three games is possible. Of course, it is going to be a hard thing for us to achieve, but I think we have the chance to do it.

“We are a team which has become even stronger than before in the Champions League this season. With this being our second season in the group stages and with us having been together mainly as a group for around three years, the team has even more confidence than before.

“We try to make the football that we play very simple in the Champions League. We know we have to be strong in the defence and not give easy goals away, we know that we have to try and counter-attack quickly and we try to take advantage of our set-pieces. It’s the things we have to do.

“In the last two games, I think we have been very unlucky. For 80 minutes against AC Milan in the San Siro, Celtic played very good and competed with them before the deflected shot which came off my leg gave them a goal. Then the red card for Browny against Barcelona was unlucky for us, too. Maybe this can change and things can go our way in the next games.”

Captain Scott Brown’s suspension for his needless dismissal on Tuesday leaves a vacancy at the heart of Celtic’s midfield for the must-win showdown with Ajax in three weeks’ time. Beram Kayal, who made his return from injury as a substitute against Barcelona, is the leading contender for the role.

The 25-year-old Israeli international is eager to re-ignite his Celtic career and shares Izaguirre’s confidence over the club’s prospects in their remaining Group H outings.

“I am so hungry at the moment because I want to play football and I have missed it,” said Kayal. “I have been so unlucky with injuries. I did my groin against Inverness a few weeks ago and thought I’d be out for two weeks.

“I returned to training and the same thing happened. It was great to get back to training on Sunday and Monday and to get 20 minutes against Barcelona. I’m so happy to be back for the gaffer and ready to play for him.

“If he wants me to play against Ajax, I’ll try to do all of my best. It has been so, so hard for us in this group so far. We have played against two of the best teams in Europe in AC Milan and Barcelona but we have looked very good. We have looked strong defensively, despite being unable to get any points.

“We can still qualify. I know that we lost the first two games and it is going to be hard, but those are games against AC Milan away and Barcelona. We played well, so now the next step is to start winning the games. If we win the next two games, we are in a strong position. I always believe in us and I believe that we can do that.”

One Celtic player who continues to enhance his reputation on the biggest club stage of them all is goalkeeper Fraser Forster. The big Englishman produced another outstanding display against Barcelona, backing up the belief of his manager and team-mates that he is among the premier operators in his position in the tournament.

“We all talk highly of him and some people think we are crazy for it,” said Kayal. “But I really think Fraser is one of the best goalkeepers in Europe, if not the best. He is absolutely brilliant and everyone has seen it again against Barcelona.

“I don’t know why he hasn’t played for England yet. Maybe it is easier for England to pick the goalkeeper from Manchester City. But Fraser has shown in every Champions League game how good he is. I wouldn’t swap him for any other goalkeeper. He is the best.”