Celtic are the Champions League’s most underrated side
Celtic go into the Champions League aware that their chances of prolonging their adventure beyond Christmas are slim. Brendan Rodgers’ side have been paired in a tough Group B along with potential winners Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, as well as Anderlecht.
Had Hoffenheim succeeded in knocking Liverpool out in the playoff round, the path for the Glasgow club would have been considerably easier for they would have graduated from a fourth seed to the third pot, making at least third spot a more attainable target.
Last term, they showed glimpses of their potential, holding Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side to a 3-3 draw at home when the Premier League club came into the game having won all of their previous 10 matches. They also drew away to the English giants and picked up a creditable point away from home against Borussia Monchengladbach. Only Barcelona succeeded in dismantling them in what was a fiendishly difficult pool.
The draw has been equally unkind to the Hoops this time around, and on Tuesday they begin their campaign with a home match against a star-studded PSG team at Celtic Park, which has established itself as one of the great European venues over the years.
With an unprecedentedly firm grip on domestic matters – Celtic are unbeaten in Scotland since Rodgers took charge in the summer of 2016 – Europe is the stage upon which they have come to define themselves.
And Celtic have built a very fine side indeed. Over the years, they have successfully developed a policy of buying under-valued youngsters, bringing them on and selling at a profit. Premier League stars Virgil van Dijk, Victor Wanyama and Fraser Forster all have the club to thank for developing them into top-level players.
Rodgers has lifted the club to a new level, though. The man who so nearly took Liverpool to the Premier League crown has moulded an exciting squad comprising of developing talents and rejuvenated stars who had lost their way.
While Moussa Dembele’s performances have seen him linked with the likes of Chelsea and Monaco over the last eight weeks, the France Under-21 international striker will not be able to displace the unfashionable Leigh Griffiths when he returns to fitness. The Scot has thrived under Rodgers’ stewardship, becoming a stalwart for both club and country, as he proved when he scored two stunning free kicks against England in quick succession last June.
Scott Sinclair, meanwhile, was coaxed to Scotland by the presence of Rodgers and has enjoyed an incredible 12 months, during which he has recaptured the form that made him such a highly rated talent as a youngster at Chelsea and then a Premier League star briefly with Swansea. So well has he played, Rodgers feels that he should be considered for a first England cap.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s called up because, having worked with some of the players at that level closely, I know he is there too,” he said in April.
Elsewhere in the midfield, creativity is provided by quicksilver winger Patrick Roberts, Stuart Armstrong, a clever technician in the centre of the field, and the more physically imposing Australian Tom Rogic. In a slightly deeper role, Scott Brown embodies the battling spirit of the club, and while hopes are high that he can strike up a partnership with Olivier Ntcham, signed from Manchester City in the summer, that has yet to truly spark.
If Celtic have a weakness, however, it is in their defence, and that is why they could find themselves on the wrong end of heavy scorelines against both PSG and Bayern.
While they do possess the ultra-talented Kieran Tierney at left-back – a player who has been tipped to move to a big English side such as Manchester United or Arsenal before long – elsewhere across the back four there is not so much certainty.
Erik Sviatchenko is their most talented centre-back but is liable to miss the PSG clash due to injury, much like the other regular starter, Dedryck Boyata. It will, therefore, be a makeshift pairing in the heart of the defence for the opening game.
Those teams below the absolute top level typically have a point of frailty that can be exploited, and unfortunately for Celtic, this is theirs. This area of their side will undermine them against the very best teams in the world, yet there can be little doubt that they are rapidly moving in the correct direction under Rodgers.
What the Hoops do have, however, is their support. On Champions League evenings, Celtic Park becomes a reverberating bowl of mass hysteria that has daunted Europe’s best in the past. Barcelona, Manchester United and Juventus have all lost in the Glasgow’s East End in the not-so-distant past and on Tuesday Rodgers’ men are hoping to take another scalp.
PSG will start as hot favourites, but this Celtic team is one that should not lightly be written off.