Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Don't be scared, It's only the San Siro

Imagine being Darren O'Dea.

You're 19 years old and tonight you play for Celtic. Against AC Milan. In the San bloody Siro. You've come up through the ranks, made the international underage teams, been groomed for the top for some time. In the youth academy at Celtic you'd have been given talks about handling pressure, about dealing with testing situations.

You've played at Parkhead, even against Milan, and done fine - more than fine. But tonight you play in the San Siro. 19 years old!

I went to Milan two-odd years ago to watch Celtic play AC in the group stages of the 2004-05 Champions League. It was my first time in the stadium, and I clearly remember being awestruck. I clearly remember being drunk also, but yes, awestruck too.

It's a little shaggy round the edges now, but the famous cylindrical towers and the stacked tiers are utterly distinctive and the place has an aura that few other stadiums can match. I remember feeling intimidated - as well as awestruck and drunk - even by sitting in the stand behind the goal. Not intimidated in the sense that my safety was in danger, rather by proxy for the Celtic players who had to play there.

Then there was the noise made when Milan scored. Not a smiling "yeeeeessssssss" sound at all, but a primal roar from the curva sud, belligerent and aggressive.

Darren O'Dea and his colleagues face a herculean task to get a result in this place. It's not the greatest ever Milan team (but still a very strong one), and the stadium will not be full, but the imposing character of the arena would test the most experienced professional.

The mental preparation of the players will probably be Gordon Strachan's biggest challenge this evening, requiring the manager to cajole his players into a winning combination of full-blooded commitment and ice cool temperament.

The result of the first leg leaves both teams with a conundrum of sorts in planning their approach, with both requiring a goal to progress, yet neither needing one to survive. However Milan will almost certainly attempt to kill the tie early on, preventing confidence from growing within the Celtic ranks.

The first half hour of the match will be crucial for Celtic: survive it and they will feel intimidated neither by opposition nor venue.

But still - 19 years old!

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