Monday, February 19, 2007

Celts Get Back to Work

Since the Champions League group stages ended on 6 December, Celtic have been enjoying a winter break. But the players haven't been on any golfing trips to Dubai, or getting away for a few days with the wife and kids. Indeed, during this sabbatical, the furthest they got from wintery Glasgow was even less balmy Inverness.

Oh and they had some league games to play out as well, a couple of cup ties too. But considering that Celtic went 10 points clear at the top of the SPL on 29th October, the business of serious domestic football at Parkhead ceased quite some time ago.

Tomorrow night, however, the holiday is over. AC Milan arrive at Parkhead and the ground will reawaken from hibernation with a jolt that a richter scale could measure.

The importance of football matches is usually classified using that simplest of adjectives: bigness. As in, this game is bigger than that one; this is the biggest game in our history; it's a big game for us at Rochdale on Saturday. For Celtic, undoubtedly, tomorrow night is Big.

With the myopic historians of the UEFA Champions League deciding that the last 16 in Europe's premier competition did not exist before 1992, Celtic's progression to this stage is considered a first for the club (despite regular appearances in the latter stages of the old European Cup in the 1960s and 70s).

The fact that Celtic have all but copper-fastened another league title at home adds to the importance of the Champions League in their attentions, given that Gordon Strachan's team have been able to keep one eye on Milan since the draw was made.

However, rather than spend their canter to the league title rehearsing for the Big Night, Strachan has been ostensibly taking each domestic game on its own merits, picking teams to win three points rather than to bed-in for Milan.

In defence Celtic are likely to have to select 19-year-old Irishman Darren O'Dea alongside Stephen McManus, with the more experienced likes of Gary Caldwell and Bobo Balde injured.

However, since Balde was stretchered off against Dundee United on Boxing Day, Strachan has only chosen tomorrow night's likely centre-half pairing on two occasions - the 1-1 draw at Motherwell on 30 December and the 4-1 victory over Livingston in the Scottish Cup. Even those two selections were brought about by necessity, the former being prior to Stephen Pressley's recruitment as cover, the latter after the deposed Hearts skipper had sustained an injury.

Not that Strachan hasn't been thinking about Milan though. Indeed the Celtic boss almost thought he had cracked how to conquer the Italians. "I thought 'great, fantastic' but the problem was we needed 13 Celtic players on the pitch to do it. And Uefa are making us play with 11," he admitted last week.

The Italians' reputation and standing automatically commands respect. But Celtic could have picked worse times to test their mettle against the Serie A giants. Leaving aside the 8 point deduction for their role in last year's match fixing scandal, this has not been a vintage year for the Rossoneri.

Adding those points to their current total would leave them in fourth with 41 points, 22 behind leaders Inter and far from the almost permanent residence in the top two that they enjoyed in recent seasons. The loss of Andrij Shevchenko has left them rather toothless up front and their total of 32 goals in 23 games (four of which came in yesterday's win over Siena) is the main reason for their unspectacular station, points deduction apart.

What better way to resolve toothlessness than by recruiting Ronaldo, he of the Bugs Bunny choppers (but oh, were it only carrots that the rotund Brazilian chomped those famous incisors on!). However, like the less vaunted Pressley and Paul Hartley, Celtic's transfer window recruits, Ronaldo is ineligible for the Champions League.

Judging by the concentrated caution which characterised Celtic's victory over Manchester United, and the patient, narrow game favoured by AC, the tie could be decided by two of the best dead ball practitioners in the business: Celtic's Shunsuke Nakamura and AC's Andrea Pirlo. Both have perfected the taking of free-kicks to the point where goals are delivered almost on demand from any distance within 30 yards of goal.

Nakamura's winner against United started Celtic's winter of ease, given that it insured second stage qualification and that he team barely turned up in Copenhagen for the final group stage match.

If he can pick up from where he left off tomorrow night, Celtic's winter break will have done them the power of good.

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