Early Doors

It’s your big chance Celtic (now please don’t mess it up)

Tony Watt makes history

Early Doors rarely speaks to humans, but this time it felt appropriate to break out and consult an individual accustomed to the occasion.

Alan McInally is no stranger to crunch European ties, having played many both with Celtic and Bayern Munich. Times have since changed in Scottish football, heightening the magnitude of tonight's Champions League group match against Spartak Moscow.

The Hoops drew a mini-stinker of a group containing Barcelona, Spartak Moscow and Benfica, but famous wins against the Catalan giants and the Russian side put them in a position where they need to better the Portuguese side's result for a place in the last 16. And with Spartak coming to Parkhead and Benfica visiting the mighty Barca, Celtic's future is (almost) in their own hands.

"I'm in the very fortunate position of having played at Parkhead in a midweek European match," the big man told ED. "While a point will probably be enough, I don't think many Celtic fans will want one. Not when you've beaten Barca in your last home match — indeed, I don't think they'll even contemplate that. Remember, they've already been to Russia and got a win, and the roar of the Celtic fans will demand three points.

"Well, I hope it will. The biggest problem Celtic face is any belief that it's a foregone conclusion — I covered a game this year where another of my former clubs, Bayern, went to BATE Borisov, and there was no question that in the early stages they thought they'd win it easily. They got beat 3-1.

"You cannot take anything for granted until you know you're in a position to win the game — and that's usually not until the final whistle."

Celtic's strategy in Europe has been consistent so far — defend in numbers, look for the counter attack, get it wide when they can, exploit their chances ruthlessly.

It has worked surprisingly well, although there were criticisms of the somewhat negative tack in Lisbon last time out. They lost, and McInally feels a slightly more positive approach could be called for at home to the Russians.

"That's one of the biggest posers Neil Lennon will have — do you play same way as you did against Barca, making space a premium in the final third, or play a more direct version of your counter-attacking game?

"I don't think Celtic's possession will be that much greater than it was against Barcelona (ED — the Hoops have been hovering around the 30-35% mark in these group games), so the midfield will need to be able to deal with that, to stay disciplined and use the ball effectively when they get it.

"All Champions League teams are good at keeping the ball, and they are all able to counter attack, so it's a delicate balance. Indeed, Celtic will be wary of getting done over in the same way they did Spartak away. Neil has to make sure they dictate the game in the sense that they are in charge of the ball when it is in the final third.

"If Celtic are in a position where they are the decision makers with the ball, particularly in wide positions, they can create chances."

Alan McInally scored the winner for Bayern Munich against Milan, but they went out on away goals

It's not all hunky dory for Celtic though — the absence of suspended midfielder Victor Wanyama is a blow to their chances, particularly as he is exactly the player who has allowed them to win the key battles in midfield, and exploit the few chances they do get going forward.

"It's a big problem, not just in terms of winning back the ball, but the energy and aggression going forward, and his goal-scoring. He's vital to their style of play and as big a threat as anyone at the club. Hopefully it won't be enough of a loss to have an impact — the best thing for Celtic is that this game is at Parkhead, and the fans know exactly what their noise can achieve to help Neil maximise everyone's performance on the night.

"Maximising performance is vital — everyone needs to be 100% focused at all times. The worst thing you can do is think it's a foregone conclusion, to drift through the first 20 minutes of such a big occasion and, before you know it, you're 1-0 down at half-time.

"Drifting has been a problem for Celtic domestically — they've clearly focused all their intents on Europe, which is quite energy sapping, but there is also the threat of this malaise seeping into tonight's match.

"But there is a great incentive here — the boy Watt will be remembered for a long time for what was eventually the winner against Barcelona, and there's another chapter in Celtic's history waiting to be written by someone else.

"The budget means we can no longer compete with the likes of PSG, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester United and City or even the Russian clubs like Spartak (who bought Celtic's star player Aiden McGeady).

"But being in the last 16 of the Champions League suddenly makes you a very attractive January prospect to players in Spain, Portugal and other countries. We saw a sudden spike in Celtic's pulling power after they qualified for the group stage but that was a bit late in the day — get through tonight and they can get some real quality in.

"It's Celtic's biggest European match for years, their biggest opportunity in what was been a tough year for Scottish football — and they need to grab it with both hands."

Former Celtic, Bayern Munich and Aston Villa striker Alan McInally was speaking to Eurosport on behalf of BETDAQ, official betting partner of Celtic FC. He shares his best football predictions every week at www.betdaqtips.com.


QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Last year Borussia Dortmund went out in the first group and were fourth in that group. This year, for me, they are probably a team that can win the Champions League" — Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini puts a positive spin on their disappointing bottom placed finish in The Group Of A Slow Painful Death By Tortue.

FOREIGN VIEW: Togo coach Didier Six believes his position is untenable ahead of the African Cup of Nations as star player Emmanuel Adebayor continues his boycott of the national team over unpaid expenses and bonuses. "I'm held hostage by the situation and I have no other solution but to think about my future," said the former French international."This raises inevitable questions about a year spent putting a team together and then the entire edifice crumbling inside a very short time."

COMING UP: The aforementioned Champions League group matches, all kicking off at 7.45pm, are of significantly more interest tonight than last night's slew of dead rubbers. There are three last-16 slots up for grabs, with Celtic's match against Spartak and Chelsea's game with FC Nordsjaelland dependent on other results. CFR Cluj also face Group H winners Manchester United knowing a win could put them through at Galatasaray's expense. Tight. Expert blogger Paul Parker will preview Chelsea's latest drama later this morning, while Liga expert Andy Mitten sheds some light on Valencia's schizophrenic season so far as part of our Pitchside Europe series.