No sooner had Celtic sneaked past Hapoel Be’er Sheva in the Champions League playoff round they were given their most difficult group stage opponents they’ve had in over 10 years.
The Hoops were drawn against Barcelona, Manchester City, and Borussia Monchengladbach. On paper, the group should be a formality, with Brendan Rodgers’ men fighting it out with German heavyweights Borussia for third place.
However, football isn’t played on paper, and here, we take a look at Celtic’s chances against each of the three sides mentioned – and how they can exploit their superior opponents.
For a team like Celtic who play such a patient possession game, they’ll have to change their game-plan totally for this one.
When it comes to patient possession, Barcelona are the supreme leaders. Celtic have enjoyed setting up in a 4-2-3-1 formation recently, with either Nir Bitton, Callum McGregor, or captain Scott Brown joining a front three of Scott Sinclair, Tom Rogic, and James Forest in behind Leigh Griffiths.
It will be interesting to see how many of these players get picked for the Barcelona games, with the first game of the group stage for Celtic at the Nou Camp. The Hoops can’t afford to have one of their two holding ensure the likes of Sinclair and Forrest, (the latter could well be dropped for Patrick Roberts on the right wing), can track back for the entire 90 minutes.
In their last three fixtures, Celtic have shipped six goals – two in each match. If Rodgers’ men are to get yet another sensational result against the Catalans, they’ll have to ensure that these lapses in concentration don’t occur even once in either of the two fixtures.
When Celtic desperately tried to see out the final 20 minutes of their clash with Be’er Sheva, they switched to a back five, with Brown and Bitton just in front of them, effectively making it a seven-man defence.
Celtic may very well line up with something similar, as they’ll want to shut up shop completely and make sure there are no gaps available for Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez to start passing the ball around.
In terms of attacking Barcelona, Celtic will be relying on the same thing they have done in the last four meetings against them – the dead ball. Mysteriously, Barcelona have had troubles defending from set-pieces for years, and Celtic will remember that three of the four goals they scored against Barcelona in their last four meetings were indeed headers from set-pieces.
Celtic have since lost the aerial presence of Georgios Samaras, but they have plenty of height in defence should they wish to push them higher up the park for corners and free-kicks.
They also have the height of Moussa Dembele if he gets selected to face the Nou Camp men. No matter what, games against Barcelona always come down to how good the La Liga side are on a particular night, but if Celtic can get the basics right and keep it tight, they’ll be dreaming of another memorable outing against their now common foes.
Celtic will definitely see Manchester City as the easier team of the two heavyweights face in the group, but that won’t mean the Hoops will be expecting much from their two meetings together.
Back in 2013, Pep Guardiola admitted that he always wanted to take his team to Celtic Park and experience the special Parkhead atmosphere, and now he’ll get his wish.
The Hoops meet City in the second round of fixtures at Celtic Park, and this is where Celtic will know they have to put everything into the match to get an advantage. It’s worth pointing out that a victory for then in this clash could be massive, as City would then have a double header against Barcelona to deal with, which could give Celtic the opportunity to pull away from City if they’re fortunate.
As for the match itself, though, this is looking like a different proposition than the last few years. City have started on fire under Guardiola, scoring 10 goals in their last three fixtures, winning all four competitive games so far. City won’t sit back and soak up any kind of pressure against the Hoops; they’ll play to their strengths and get on the front foot from the get-go.
Since this will be the case in both games, Celtic will have to be organised. Don’t expect them to go to five at the back against City, however, as they’ll want to make sure they have periods in the game where they have the Citizens under pressure.
Kolo Toure and Erik Sviatchenko will be tasked with using their combined strength to stop Sergio Aguero in any way they can. Celtic won’t try and cut through the centre of the City midfield, as they know a loss of possession in that area could prove costly as City can break at pace.
They’re more likely to try and get at wing-backs Aleksandar Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta through the pace of Sinclair and Roberts (the former a former City player, and the latter on loan at Celtic from the Citizens).
It will be interesting to see if Rodgers chooses Griffiths over Dembele, as Celtic will need someone to hold the ball up effectively and bring the wingers into play.
On paper, this wouldn’t be the job of Griffiths, and would be more suited to former Fulham striker Dembele, however with Griffiths on fire this season and netting nearly every game; it will take some nerve from Rodgers to drop him.
He could surprise us and go with two up front, but Celtic will want to be cautious. It’s clear their best form of attack is to exploit the wide areas with their swashbuckling pace, but with City destined to have most of the ball, it will be another two nights where Celtic will have to use defence as their best form of attack.
With both of these sides likely battling for third place, you should expect Celtic to seriously come out and attack Gladbach at Celtic Park. The Hoops will probably revert back to their domestic 4-2-3-1 formation as they’ll look to obtain most of the possession in the home fixture.
Unlike the ties against Barcelona and Manchester City, Celtic will use a variety of different options to attack Gladbach. The Germans have tended to flood the midfield so far this season, using a complex 3-5-1-2 formation to get a firm grip on things in the middle of the park.
Celtic have to be wary of the numbers Gladbach will no doubt throw in the central area, and they’ll have to find small gaps and use clever movement to get past their midfield. Celtic still wish to bring in one more player before the end of the transfer window, with Everton’s James McCarthy being touted as the one Rodgers is after.after.after.after.after.after.after.after.
If Celtic can bring the Republic of Ireland international in, he will probably play as one of the two holding midfielder roles in behind the attacking three. Since McCarthy is more of an attacking midfielder than a holder, there is a small chance he could play just in front of Brown to turn the formation into a defensive 4-1-1-3-1 formation.
This would be a concern, with Celtic’s attacking three no doubt playing high up the park, Gladbach would flood the midfield and probably dominate Brown and McCarthy in the central areas.
Celtic’s best hope is to stick with the 4-2-3-1 and treat Gladbach a lot differently without showing the respect they are likely to have against Man City or Barcelona. Sinclair and Roberts will play high up the park, but Tom Rogic will have to drop back and help the defensive midfielders to retrieve the ball and break up Gladbach.
The atmosphere inside Parkhead will throw Gladbach slightly, as it will be their first competitive visit to the East End of Glasgow. This scenario gives Celtic an early advantage, and they have to get an early feel of the ball and look to dominate possession.
The away fixture will be entirely different as Gladbach’s midfield five will play very high up the park, and Celtic won’t see much of the ball. When they do get it, the answer will be the same as they were for the Manchester City clashes – use Roberts and Sinclair effectively.
They’ll have to be defensively solid and will need the same concentration in Germany that they will compete against City and Barca, as the Bundesliga side have the quality to cut Celtic open at any moment.City and Barca, as the Bundesliga side have the quality to cut Celtic open at any time.
So it won’t be an easy group by any stretch of the imagination, and there is a chance that even if Celtic do everything said above, they can still lose all six games due to the opposition’s quality.
However, the Hoops have to look at this as a learning experience. It’s their first appearance in the groups for three years, and they’ve just started to build a new team under Rodgers. This year was all about getting there; but if they can screw the head on and everyone has solid performances, they may provide a couple of small shocks this season.