In my last blog I proclaimed that Celtic have already built their fortress and now they must use their cannons. Following their 3-2 victory over Malmo last Wednesday, the opposite now must take place in order for the Bhoys to progress to the group stages of the Champions League.
We got off to a blistering start with two goals in the first ten minutes and, with full-time approaching, a two-goal lead heading into Sweden next Tuesday. However, one of our former players, Jo Inge Berget, silenced Parkhead with a shock last-minute goal which could prove decisive in a close tie.
For large parts of the game Celtic looked dominant and sometimes they were spectacular; it was a different class from the ugly yet resilient performances against Qarabag. But lapses of concentration during the second half meant that Malmo have two away goals and the mental advantage heading into the second-leg next week.
Of course, the hosts were not helped by injuries to right-back Mikael Lustig and central midfielder Nir Bitton. The possible loss of the two international players expose the lack of depth the club has on their bench.
Bitton could easily be replaced , though. Stefan Johansen could be pushed into a deeper role if required or Ronny Deila could use Celtic’s utility man Charlie Mulgrew to plug the gap left by the Israeli youngster.
However, replacing Lustig will be seen as problematic for Celtic’s coaching staff. Lustig, who would probably be playing at a higher level if it weren’t for his previous injury problems, had the ideal replacement in Adam Matthews. Emphasis on the “had.” They sold him on to Sunderland in what will be considered a very costly piece of business for the club if they fail to reach the Champions League group stages for the second year running.
Lustig’s most likely stand-in is Nigerian centre-back Efe Ambrose. He would not be so bad if he didn’t have a Titus Bramble-esque reputation for having a costly mistake a game in him and that he wasn’t playing out of position. It was Ambrose’s non-tackle that eventually lead to Berget scoring his second goal against his former club.
Ambrose is the sort of player that Celtic do not need for a crucial fixture such as this one. They need resiliency across the back four to secure their place in the last-32 of Europe’s elite competition. Ambrose was benched for Jason Denayer last season, just like he was benched for Dedryck Boyata this term. Considering that late goals plagued them in Europe last year, concentration is vital and that is one key mental attribute that the Nigeria international has been lacking in his game for the past season or two.
Moreover, questions do have to be raised on a point that was previously made – Celtic lack depth and will the likes of Van Dijk and Boyata end up being physically too tired to compete? Again, Charlie Mulgrew could probably fill in against Dundee United at the weekend but the numbers are lacking when it comes to the defence.
Tiredness and mental fragilities could prove costly for the Scottish Premiership champions next week if they are not careful. For once it is not firepower that is the issue – however there should still be some room for optimism. After all, Qarabag were a tougher opponent in even tougher conditions and a draw should be very manageable for Celtic next week. Therefore qualification, if they are careful, should be in the bag.