Celtic welcome Europe’s in-form team to Celtic Park on Wednesday night in match day 2 in the Uefa Champions League. It will be Brendan Rodgers’ first taste of a Group Stage fixture at Celtic Park and it’s also the first time his opposite number, Pep Guardiola, has visited Glasgow in his time as a manager.
Celtic warmed up for City’s visit with another emphatic league triumph over Kilmarnock on Saturday. The Hoops have started impressively in the league with 16 points from a possible 18 and a goal difference of +15. Perhaps the stat which most underlines Celtic’s free-flowing start domestically is that 5 players have already scored 5+ goals (Dembele 10, Griffiths 8, Sinclair 7, Rogic 6, Forrest 5.)
Manchester City’s start under Pep Guardiola trumps even Celtic’s domestic exploits. Guardiola has made a mockery of the assertion that he might’ve needed time to adapt to the demands of the English Premier League with 10 wins from 10 in all competitions and a perfect league start that sees them clear of the chasing pack already. Their 1-3 win at Swansea kept them four points clear of closest challengers Spurs and five ahead of Arsenal and Liverpool with only 6 games played.
Contrasting starts to the Group Stage highlight the dangers for Celtic in this fixture. Overawed by Barcelona in the Nou Camp meanwhile City ran out comfortable 4-0 winners at home against Borussia Monchengladbach. This is the first competitive meeting between the clubs and the home crowd will give Celtic a welcome edge, a setting that no English team has ever won in.
The key for Celtic will be not to stand back and give City too much respect. Yes, they have a fantastic team with some world class talents but as we learned in Barcelona if you stand off and let them play you will get battered. The stats from match day 1 made for grim reading, with Celtic registering one tackle and only recording three fouls. When you play against teams with this level of quality you’ve got to make it hard for them, get in their faces because if you let them get comfortable and find their rhythm you’ll get beaten. Celtic are clearly the underdogs in this group but we’ve got to start playing like we belong at this level and stop acting like we’re just happy to be here – as it looked that way in the Nou Camp.
Manchester City will come to Glasgow high on confidence but without their man of the season so far, Kevin De Bruyne, who limped off with a hamstring injury on Saturday. De Bruyne has been instrumental in City’s great start to the season and looks like he’ll be a key figure of the Guardiola era. Given the freedom to roam in between the lines with David Silva taking up the slightly deeper role of the two, his vision and decision making have been almost flawless in the early season. On Saturday, he was replaced by Jesus Navas, and I expect Guardiola will start the Spanish winger on Wednesday with Fernandinho, Gundogan and David Silva completing the central three in midfield.
Brendan Rodgers has a choice to make in central defence after starting Saturday with Erik Sviatchenko and Jozo Simunovic together for the first time. Simunovic has been impressive since his return from injury but to date Rodgers has preferred Kolo Toure to partner Sviatchenko in Europe and I suspect he’ll stick with that on Wednesday. The only other team selection headache will come at right wing, where it will either be James Forrest or Patrick Roberts. Forrest has started and scored in each of the last two games but Roberts, being a City player with a point to prove, may get the nod from Rodgers. This has both benefits and consequences though as Man City will also know Roberts inside out having worked with him. Leigh Griffiths is fit again and announced his return with a goal from the bench against Kilmarnock on Saturday but Moussa Dembele has been in fine form since he has come in the team and is now in double figures – with all goals coming at Celtic Park. Dembele is also a better option in terms of holding the ball up on a night where Celtic are likely to have to give up possession for long periods. Both could conceivably play, if Griffiths replaced Tom Rogic, and played just behind the Frenchman but we really need the extra man in midfield – Griffiths couldn’t drop back to do that job effectively enough. That would be a bit gung-ho against a team of City’s quality and Rodgers will go with one up top.
It’s a massive night for Celtic and it’ll be great to have these spectacles back under the lights at Celtic Park as it’s one of the most unique venues in European football on these occasions. Vitally important that we stay in the game for as long as we can, don’t let City play and take the chances when they come along because you don’t get many at this level. Whatever happens, Wednesday night promises to be blockbuster – don’t miss it.
Predicted Celtic XI: Gordon; Lustig, Toure, Sviatchenko, Tierney; Brown, Bitton; Forrest, Rogic, Sinclair; Dembele.
Predicted Manchester City XI: Bravo; Sagna, Stones, Otamentdi, Kolarov; Fernandinho, Gundogan, Silva; Navas, Aguero, Sterling.