Monday, November 20, 2006

Night of Magic Ahead in Glasgow

Ordinarily the players of Manchester United wouldn’t be particularly engaged about the prospect of a midwinter Champions League group stage trip to the one of Europe’s footballing backwaters, even less so one that takes place in the days preceding what seems certain to be the first truly material Premiership giant-battle in some seasons.

But such is the singular magic of a European night at Parkhead that concerns about the impending hostilities with Chelsea will be, for ninety minutes at least, edged a little aside.

True, had Alex Ferguson approached the previous group stage match in Copenhagen with a similar focus, and got the positive result that would have ensured United’s qualification from Group F, he would undoubtedly have spared Celtic many more of his front liners than he plans to do this evening.

That said, any professional player would be enthused about playing in what is a now-fabled atmosphere on such nights. Should the match itself follow a similar pattern as the first group stage game, a thrilling encounter which United won 3-2, then the very roof of the East End amphitheatre is likely to lift off such would be the voltage in galleries.

Is it reasonable to expect that tonight’s contest will be as well-contested as its predecessor at Old Trafford (although United missed many chances that evening, they were gifted their three goals through Celtic errors)?

Since that game United have been on an upward trajectory which seems, at this admittedly early point, to be presenting England with its first genuine Championship race in four seasons. Not only that, but after much soul-searching about how to compete in the post-Abramovich environment, United have achieved their current state of rejuvenation in a manner that seems uncomplicatedly synonymous with the buccaneering style which brought them to their late 90s apotheosis.

With Nemanja Vidic helping to stiffen a defensive vulnerability which allowed Celtic to give them such a fright in the earlier game, the main thrust of United’s good form as been, well, their thrust. Their most potent artillery has been firing with blistering force: Saha, Ronaldo, Giggs, Rooney and Scholes - the muse for their recent creativity - have all been in rare synergy of late.
Celtic themselves took flight after the last meeting of the sides, particularly in fine, flowing victories over Rangers in the league, and Copenhagen and Benfica at home in the Champions League.

But the force of the defeat Gordon Strachan’s side suffered in Portugal, 3-0 at the hands of Benfica, seemed to knock a fair puff out of Celtic, knocking back their confidence and scuppering the élan they had been hitherto displaying in their play.

They have battled their way to consecutive victories in the league, however, and although this season’s challenge from the rest in Scotland had been typically non-vintage, deserve credit for the redoubt ability they have demonstrated since that harrowing experience in Lisbon: particularly in the late, come-from-behind victory over Hearts.

Importantly, and a fact that was often ignored in the critical reaction to the Benfica defeat, Celtic now have Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Thomas Gravesen - two players who missed the loss and the two of Celtic’s summer signings whose recruitment was most with evenings like that in mind - back from injury. The experience and character of the Dutchman and the Dane were markedly missed in Lisbon and, if ever two players’ returns from injury were well timed, it is now for Celtic with these two. Indeed, the fact that both have had a couple of league games to run themselves into fitness is also ideal.

In talking about timing, one scrap of encouragement for Celtic is that the least impressive of United’s recent run of victories was the last one: Saturday’s defeat of Sheffield United. But before excessive hope is derived from that fact, the sight of Wayne Rooney’s continuing escalation to his full powers should be considered.

Certainly, both teams have improved in the month’s since they first met this season. On the face of it, however, it would take the strongest incarnation of the Parkhead crowd’s preternatural assistance to elevate the home team past their high-flying opponents.

That such an occurence is a possibility is why the fixture carries such interest for protagonists and supporters alike.

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