After another depressing international break where the only thing resembling a highlight for me was Poland failing to beat an England team that were there for the taking, even I as someone who still likes international football am glad to be getting back to the club football! Ireland’s humiliating defeat to Germany was bad enough, but Scotland were even worse.
With Charlie Mulgrew watching on as Danny Fox was pretty poor at left back ahead of him, Kris Commons ineffective in a team that didn’t seem to know how to use him, James Forrest picking up a knock in training, and Scott Brown lasting just a half against Wales before having to come off, I doubt it’s done anyone any good. Hopefully though Neil Lennon – along with the new first team coach, Celtic legend Danny McGrain – can lift the disappointment and get his players back to the levels they were reaching before this interruption.
First up, the table toppers make the short journey to Paisley to take on St Mirren. Commons appears to have also come back injured so he is unlikely to feature, joining Brown and Forrest on the sidelines in the hope that they can be fit for the midweek match. But we’ll come to that later as we’ve been guilty before of skipping over the SPL matches with one eye on Europe. And for me, all the pressure on us this week comes in this match.
St Mirren are currently seventh, but level on points with sixth place Kilmarnock. It’s very tight in that area of the table though as second place Hibernian are only three points ahead of them and as such it’s very difficult to tell what kind of form any team is in. What we do know is that St Mirren have yet to score against Celtic since Neil Lennon took charge and have lost every time they have played us. At Celtic Park there have been scorelines of 4-0 and 5-0, but at the new St Mirren Park it’s usually been tighter with 1-0 and 2-0 results.
It was a 2-0 win on our last visit. St Mirren put up a good fight, but some tactical substitutions by Neil Lennon saw James Forrest break the deadlock in bright sunshine before Scott Brown curled in the clincher 17 minutes later in darkness. Not bad for a lunch time kick off, but that’s weather in Scotland in January for you.
This Saturday is again a lunch time (12.30 CPT, 7.30 ET, 4.30 PT) kick off which will no doubt frustrate us further since by the press conference on Thursday lunch time we were still waiting on the return of Emilio Izaguirre, Georgios Samaras, Victor Wanyama and Miku. Still, could be worse, we could be playing the Friday night game. Although somehow I doubt Dundee or Inverness are still waiting on many big players returning from international duty.
St Mirren may not have scored against us recently, but they’ve certainly been on the scoresheet a few times in their recent matches. The start of September in a 0-0 draw with Aberdeen was the last time they failed to score, and in between then and now the highlight must certainly be the 5-4 victory at home to Ross County. I think I’ll be happy if they concede another 4 this weekend as I doubt they’ll put 5 past us. With no Paul McGowan to play currently, they do still have a threat in Steven Thompson while Lewis Guy has also been on the scoresheet. Might want to watch Kenny McLean from long range as well.
Of course, the trip to Paisley isn’t what the fans are looking forward to this week, and no doubt once the game is done it won’t be the players’ highlight either. Match Day 3 of the Champions League comes on Tuesday night – local time 20.45 (CPT 19.45, ET 14.45, PT 11.45) when Celtic travel once again to Barcelona for what will be our fourth game there in less than a decade.
Despite Barcelona’s obvious pedigree, we actually have quite a good recent record at the Camp Nou. In our three previous visits there this century we’ve draw twice and narrowly lost once. You have to go back to the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1964/65 to find a 3-1 defeat there. But to be fair, that was only our second season in Europe and Jock Stein hadn’t arrived to transform us yet.
The more recent trips are still fresh in the memory. After all, the November 2004 trip there was, until our last European game, our only point in the Champions League group stages! Samuel Eto’o had given Barcelona an early lead, but John Hartson got on the end of a late first half free kick and Celtic hung on through the second half to secure the draw. It was our second draw there that year, as in March 2004 we had taken a 1-0 aggregate lead over there which remained intact thanks to the heroics of David Marshall, John Kennedy and Stephen Pearson to name just some of the youngsters on show the night we knocked Barcelona out of the UEFA Cup.
Our last visit there was perhaps less memorable. Already 3-2 down from the home leg in our 2008 last sixteen tie there was a feeling of going there and keeping it respectable rather than hanging on to something we already had. As a result, the wonderful free flowing football from both sides that we had seen in the first leg was stifled as Celtic sat in to stop Barcelona and only a Xavi goal separated the two sides on the scoreboard that night.
So, what about this time? I must admit, I didn’t like watching Gordon Strachan’s team at the Camp Nou. As much as Barcelona do press teams in, I had seen Celtic on two previous occasions in that stadium break out when possible and attack themselves. Strachan’s team seemed somewhat limited by comparison, almost like they had accepted the inevitable. The media in Barcelona agreed, as they seemed almost surprised that the team who had given Barcelona their toughest test of the season in the first leg had somehow transformed for the second.
No such worries this time though. Everyone expects Celtic to lose this match as Barcelona are one of the favourites to win the Champions League. The monkey of the away win is gone forever, and with four points already on the board taking anything at all from Barcelona would be a welcome bonus. But again, if that’s to happen at all most expect it to happen at home rather than away.
Maybe then this is the chance for Celtic to write another chapter of the fairytale that so often appears in our history. Yes, I expect we’ll be penned in for long periods as Barcelona attack. But as we showed in Moscow, we are capable of going up the other end and taking our chances when they come. Barcelona have struggled to put central defenders on the park this season. Puyol, Alves and Busquets are all out of this match and there’s no sign of Pique being back any time soon either. As wonderful as Barcelona’s attacking players are, the defence is still prone.
All we need to do is take our chances when they come and fight from the first minute until the last. No one is expecting anything, the pressure is off, and who knows… maybe we can pull off something unexpected. They may be Barcelona, but we are Celtic. And make no mistake, they know what we’re capable of too.
Krys (twitter @Krys1888 and @HHMParadiseRep)