Champions League: Celtic campaign at critical moment

Georgios Samaras is set to play in a central striking role for Celtic against AC Milan. Picture: SNS
Georgios Samaras is set to play in a central striking role for Celtic against AC Milan. Picture: SNS
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YOU don’t have to look too hard at the Champions League group tables to see who the pea-shooters are in this competition.

Austria Vienna haven’t scored yet, Anderlecht and Real Sociedad have scored just once and, bracketed with Celtic on two goals in four games, are Steaua Bucharest and Viktoria Plzen. There is one thing that makes Celtic’s situation different, though. True, they have gone goal-less in three quarters of their matches so far but, should they win on Tuesday night against AC Milan, they will go above the Italians into third or possibly even into second, depending on what happens in Amsterdam when Ajax face Barcelona.

They have been pretty toothless in front of goal (a penalty and a fortunate deflection) but, unlike most of the others in the same category, Celtic are still alive. They face a Milan team lying tenth in Serie A, a Milan team that have made their worst start to a league campaign in over 30 years. In Amsterdam, Celtic flunked the opportunity to put themselves in good shape for the last 16, but, on Tuesday, they have one last chance to keep themselves in the hunt.

It is said that the Champions League is an unforgiving place, but that’s not been true of Celtic’s experience this season. On Friday, Neil Lennon spoke about the coming challenge. He believes that Milan will be happy to get out of Glasgow with a point and will look to play on the counter attack. He said he is ignoring their poor Serie A form because they have kept their best stuff for the Champions League. “They drew with Barcelona and they drew with Ajax,” he pointed out. “The team is full of international-class players.”

Milan have also drawn – and lost to – less stellar names. They drew 0-0 with Serie A’s worst team, Chievo, a fortnight ago and have been slammed repeatedly by their supporters this season. The manager, Massimiliano Allegri, is in trouble. Mario Balotelli, pictured, is in a sulk. The team are at their lowest ebb in years and the turbulence isn’t just confined to the dressing room. There’s a battle going on in the boardroom also.

“They’re certainly a club in transition,” said Lennon. “There’s a sea change there. They’re definitely not spending the money that they did three or four years ago. Maybe there is a strategy change in the way they are building the team or maybe they haven’t got the money at the minute. There are some people in certain quarters calling for his [Allegri’s] head, but they [those running club] are aware of the situation the coach finds himself in and they are going to be patient and muddle through and that’s good for a coach. Hopefully, it will work in our favour. Again, what I’m preparing for is playing against a very good team and I think their league form will pick up as the season progresses. There may be issues in the dressing room – I can’t comment on that – but they are still a force and one of the greatest clubs in Europe, so we have to give them all the respect they deserve.”

Milan will have something of a different look to them on Tuesday night compared to the last time these two sides met. Ignazio Abate was missing from Milan’s defence at the San Siro and Riccardo Montolivo wasn’t in their midfield. “Two very good players who will make them better,” said the Celtic manager. They’ll also have Kaka. The flipside is that these three were all present when Milan toiled against bottom-placed Chievo, and in the side that was out-classed at home by Fiorentina, and all available against Parma when they lost – all in the last month.

“I imagine Kaka will play,” said Lennon. “Balotelli hasn’t played the last couple of games, so maybe there are a few issues there, but they’ve got [Alessandro] Matri and he’s not bad, and they’ve got Robinho, so the depth of quality is there.” Matri, however, has been a huge disappointment since his move from Juventus and Robinho has scored only once for his club since the end of September.

That is part of Milan’s problem, a lack of killer touch up front. In their last three Serie A matches before yesterday’s meeting with Genoa, Milan had a total of 57 attempts on goal and yet had scored just once. This is an issue they share with Celtic, of course. And it is one that Lennon addressed. “It is an area we have to do better. We have to do better at home domestically because we have only scored nine goals [before yesterday]. It’s not that we have not had the chances. We probably had more in the Milan game than any other. Barcelona, they are always going to be scarce. Ajax at home was OK, but [against] Ajax away we didn’t get going until the second half. We need to be more clinical, but that’s what separates the wheat from the chaff in football and, sometimes, quality counts.”

In an attempt to improve things, the chances are that Georgios Samaras will play through the middle on Tuesday instead of operating on the left. Lennon is looking for a whole lot more from Samaras. The same goes for Kris Commons, as well as Anthony Stokes and Teemu Pukki, in the event that they play any part against Milan.

“There’s no point in barking at players when they miss chances because they know themselves. It’s not a major issue for me. If we weren’t creating chances, that would an issue. Kris is a leader, but he is one who disappointed against Ajax, like Samaras. We were poor going forward, but they have a chance to turn that around. Kris has a good mentality and is a quality player, as are four or five of them. We need our big players.

“Samaras was hurt after Amsterdam. He was really disappointed in his own performance, but, with Greece qualifying for the World Cup, that will give him a shot in the arm. We hope he’ll come back bouncing again. He’s been a huge player for us. At times, he carried the frontline and I’ll need that type of performance from him against Milan. He craves these nights. The fact it’s must-win, all or nothing, will motivate them even more. There is a temptation to play Georgios through the middle against Milan. It’s something we are looking at.”

Everything is crystallising in the group now. “For us to have any chance of going through, even into the Europa League, we need to win. We know that a win, coupled with Ajax dropping points, would guarantee [Europa League]. That’s a huge incentive, but just winning and adding points gives more credence to what we are doing. The players enjoy the pressure. It’s at home, it’s a big name in Europe and I think they will make the most of it. They have good character and that’s what disappointed me about Amsterdam. I know they are a lot better than that.”

Knowing it and seeing the evidence of it are two different things, of course. Milan are vulnerable, but for Celtic, there’s no safety net this time. It’s win or the Champions League dream is bust.