It took a late James Forrest goal to rescue Celtic against Shakhter Karagandy and secure their spot in this year’s Champions’ League group stage but as the draw was made yesterday, some would be forgiven for wondering if all that effort was in vain. Drawn in the same group as Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax, Celtic are anything but favourites to progress to the knockout stages. A trip to the San Siro to face AC Milan will kick off proceedings for Neil Lennon’s men before they play host to the Spanish champions, Barcelona and then the Dutch champions Ajax at Celtic Park all before the end of October. November doesn’t get any easier with a trip to the Amsterdam Arena first followed by AC Milan at home in Glasgow and then a final easy match at the Nou Camp against Barcelona.
With a somewhat weaker squad than last season, following the departures of influential trio Gary Hooper, Victor Wanyama and Kelvin Wilson, Lennon is scouring the transfer market, looking for quality players to bring in to strengthen his squad. Steven Mouyokolo and Virgil van Dijk have arrived to bulk up Lennon’s defence options, whilst Israeli youngster Nir Biton signed on this week to add an extra dimension to the midfield. But it is upfront that is the biggest concern for the manager who is desperate to find a suitable replacement for Gary Hooper, who left for Norwich in the summer. Hooper had three successful years in Glasgow scoring 82 goals in 138 appearances so filling the void left by the Englishman will be difficult. Lennon has Greek striker Georgios Samaras and Irish forward Anthony Stokes to call on but neither look like 20 goals a season strikers so the search is on to find a player who can. Lennon is hoping that 22 year old Guinea striker Amido Balde, bought during the summer from Portuguese side, Vitoria Guimaraes can be that player but it’s still too early to tell. The 6ft 4in forward hit 9 goals in 27 games last season during his debut season for Victoria and gives Celtic another option upfront. With a few days left in the transfer window and a majority of the £20 million received from the departures of Kelvin, Hooper and Wanyama, you cannot rule out the possibility of Lennon dipping into the transfer market once more, especially if the right striker came along.
Celtic may have found themselves drawn in the Group of Death but they wouldn’t have it any other way. That after all is what the Champions League is all about; to be the best you have to beat the best. Celtic will give it their all and may surprise a few people along the way just like they did last year against Barcelona. Neil Lennon’s men recorded a famous 2-1 victory over the Catalan giants in the group stages and will be hoping that history repeats itself. Barcelona are classified as a team in tradition, with new coach Gerardo Martino still trying to find his feet but with the addition of Brazilian Neymar to their ranks, Lennon now must figure out a way to contain both him and Argentinean maestro Leo Messi if his team are to come out on top.
Celtic’s Group H fixtures:
AC Milan v Celtic – Wednesday 18 September
Celtic v Barcelona – Tuesday 1 October
Celtic v Ajax – Tuesday 22 October
Ajax v Celtic – Wednesday 6 November
Celtic v AC Milan – Tuesday 26 November
Barcelona v Celtic – Wednesday 11 December