Celtic’s Europa opponents are Group A’s surprise package, warns Graham Ruthven
Spirits were already low enough on the day of Celtic’s Europa League group stage draw. Having missed out on the glittery, shimmering Champions League just three days earlier, Ronny Deila probably could have done without European heavyweights Ajax and Fenerbahce emerging from the proverbial hat in Nyon. At least they had Molde – the Norwegian minnows, by comparison – to prop up Group A.
Or so they thought. With the group stage halfway mark approaching, Molde have been much more than just a Europa League filler. In fact, Thursday’s clash between the Norwegian champions and Celtic could define the final look of Group A – with Molde currently sitting atop the standings having taken four points from their first two fixtures.
Their 3-1 win over Fenerbahce in Istanbul could have been written off as a mere fluke had it not been backed up with a spirited 1-1 draw against Ajax in their next group game. Celtic, perhaps unlike their Group A opponents, have had fair warning of the Norwegians’ capability.
But what precisely will Deila’s men come up against on the Scandinavian west coast? Molde have thus far proved Group A’s surprise package – making a mockery of any bottom-place predictions – yet not much is known of the methods behind the results. Deila – the former Stromsgodset coach who counted Molde as rivals not so long ago – might have an idea of his compatriots’ inner workings, though.
Last season Molde were crowned Norwegian champions, finishing 11 points clear of Rosenborg at the top of the Tippeligaen. But with the country’s league season running from March to November that triumph came some time ago – and they have since toiled in their title defence.
Seventh place in the Norwegian top flight is hardly where you might expect to find a side that has made such an impression in Europe. They have improved after a difficult start to the campaign, but the Europa League has still been something of a distraction.
Inconsistency has been Molde’s primary deficiency this season – losing manager Tor Ole Skullerud midway through the campaign – but when they win they invariably win well, as illustrated by their possession of the league’s second-best goal difference.
That goal difference could have been even greater, too. The sale of striker Daniel Chukwu to Chinese side Shanghai Shenxin and the long-term injury sustained by Fredrik Gulbrandsen robbed Molde of two players who had fired 23 league goals over their 2014 title-winning campaign, with replacement forward Mushaga Bakenga suffering an injury of his own just weeks after signing.
On an artificial surface installed just last year, Molde will look to play through the lines of defence, midfield and attack – moving the ball quickly whenever possible. Their midfielders – most notably Etzaz Hussain and Harmeet Singh – are distinctly modern, pressing high up the pitch in concerted unison rather than in fits and bursts. In defence they also have Vegard Forren, bought by Southampton for £4 million two years ago. Now back in Norway, the ease with which he carries the ball out from defence sets a tone for the entire team.
Under Skullerud and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – current coach Erling Moe’s predecessors – Molde sought to bring through as much homegrown talent as possible, with their first-team squad now boasting six academy graduates and only three players over the age of 26. Just like Celtic, the club have targeted the best domestic talent from around the Tippeligaen and Scandinavia as a whole.
In many ways, Molde are of the same mould Deila from which has forged his Celtic team. But just like their Scottish counterparts, they have sometimes struggled to impose the same style of play on continental opposition – altering their domestic philosophy in order to find success in Europe.
Indeed, the side Celtic will face next week will be somewhat less expansive than their scouts will have seen domestically – with their flying wingers unlikely to fly quite as often, and their attacking full-backs expected to curb their attacks somewhat. The 4-4-2 formation predominantly used in the Tippeligaen will also become a 4-3-3 or maybe even a 4-5-1 shape.
That’s certainly not to say that Moe will opt for a stodgy approach against Celtic. In fact, the selection of Tommy Høiland over on-loan Austria Vienna striker Ola Kamara in each of their two Europa League outings so far underlines how Molde have looked to retain much of their naturally dynamic identity.
Kamara is the man to hold up the ball, but as Hoe sees it he has little need for such a player, even in the Europa League’s group of death, instead opting for Høiland – the better of the two at linking up play and running the channels. Against Celtic he is expected to start once again.
Since his appointment last year Deila has attempted to implement a Scandinavian ideology at Celtic, encountering more than a few cultural barriers blocking his way. Molde, in a lot of ways, are the native epitome of that concept.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Thursday, 22 October: Molde v Celtic, 8:05pm; Fenerbahce v Ajax, 8:05pm.
Thursday, 5 November: Celtic v Molde, 6pm; Ajax v Fenerbahce, 6pm GMT.
Thursday, 26 November: Celtic v Ajax, 8:05pm; Molde v Fenerbahce, 8:05pm.
Thursday, 10 December: Fenerbahce v Celtic, 6pm; Ajax v Molde, 6pm.