The knockout stage of the UEFA Champions League kicks off with two sides with a rich history, meeting at one of the most fabled grounds in all of football. Scottish Champions Celtic FC clash with Italian Champions Juventus at Parkhead, to see who will go through to the quarterfinals.
The Hoops finished second in Group G, which included an exhilarating victory over Barcelona in Glasgow. The Old Lady were top of the table in Group E that saw them eliminate defending titleholders Chelsea from the competition.
With Celtic 18 points clear of second place of the Scottish Premier League, manager Neil Lennon can put all of his focus on the European stage, which could be a huge benefit for Celtic. Lennon can rest players, and use his squad accordingly, for the proper fixtures.
Lennon used what ESPN called a “reserve side” in their 3-1 result over second place Inverness over the weekend. Which means, Celtic should field a full strength roster on Tuesday.
The Bhoys use a traditional 4-2-2 most of the time, but can go 4-3-3 when needed. It is expected they will use the standard 4-2-2 formation, but Lennon is known to surprise opponents with his tactics.
What won’t be a surprise is if Gary Hooper is on the team sheet. The English forward leads the club with 23 goals in all competitions, including 4 in the Champions League. With his pace and accuracy, Hooper is a dangerous force for Celtic. A concern for Celtic is the fitness of Georgios Samaras. The Greek International has been bothered with a hamstring problem, and is doubtful for Tuesday’s fixture. If Samaras can’t go, expect Scottish International Tony Watt to be on the pitch, for the opening kickoff.
The midfield should see the return of Scott Brown who despite injury woes, has been the talismanic figure for Celtic. Brown’s leadership and poise is vital for Celtic’s success, especially that he will have to keep a close watch on Andrea Pirlo. Kenyan International Victor Wanyama has returned from the African Cup of Nations, and is expected to be on the team sheet. Wanyama’s 8 goals in all competitions, which includes 2 in the Champions League, will be a welcome addition to the Celtic side. James Forrest is also nursing a hamstring knock, so if he isn’t available, Lennon could use either Kris Commons, Joe Ledley or Beram Kayal in the starting eleven. Both Commons and Kayal played against Inverness, though Commons was substituted off, just one minute after the second half began.
There are concerns of the back four for Celtic. Left back Emilio Izaguirre is doubtful with a knee knock. Centre back Efe Ambrose won’t be available, as he will be returning from his the African Cup of Nations, after his Nigerian side won the championship. Charlie Mulgrew can move to left back, which could be advantageous, as the Scottish International is not afraid to go forward, and is exceptional at crosses. It is possible that either Mikael Lustig or Adam Matthews could be moved to centre back from their right back slots. Kelvin Wilson should be one of the centre backs.
A major boost for Celtic is the return of keeper Fraser Forster. The English International was suffering from a neck strain, but is deemed fully fit, and will be between the sticks for Celtic. Forster was man of the match in Celtic’s win over Barcelona, with a brilliant performance that will be remembered in the East End of Glasgow for years to come.
Juventus manager Antonio Conte likes to use three at the back, but with centre back Giorgio Chiellini absent due to a knee injury, Conte will most likely use four in the back. Andrea Barzagli should start at centre back for Conte’s squad. Leonardo Bonucci will most likely be move back from his sweeper spot, to fill in for Chiellini. This shouldn’t be a problem as Bonucci is one of the most adaptable players for Juventus, and can be used in this type of role very easily. Stephan Lichtsteiner should be the starting right back. Look for the Swiss International to press forward along the flank. Either Italian International Paolo De Ceglie or Uruguayan International Martin Caceres will be the left back.
The midfield revolves around the brilliant Andrea Pirlo. A magician with the ball, Pirlo can control the tempo of the game with his slick passing, and mental acumen. Pirlo is one of the ten best players in the world today, and Celtic need to minimize his impact in order to be successful. Arturo Vidal is rising in the ranks of great midfielders. The Chilean International shares the club lead with 10 goals in all competitions, including 3 in the Champions League. Vidal uses pace and creativity along the right flank, and is deadly when going forward while being secure in his defensive responsibilities. Claudio Marchisio is another dependable midfielder, who provides attacking flair from the right side.
A question for Conte is who will start up front. On the weekend, Mirko Vucinic and Alessandro Matri were on the team sheet, and each contributed a goal in Juventus 2-0 victory over Fiorentina. Will this mean that Sebastian Giovinco and Fabio Quagliarella be on the sheet on Tuesday? Conte isn’t saying, but it will be discussed and debated by Juventus supporters until kickoff.
There is no debate about who the starting keeper is. Gianliugi Buffon is still one of the best in the world between the sticks, even though he is 35 years old, and supposedly in the twilight of his career.
Celtic must win the first leg at home, if they are to have any chance of seeing the quarterfinals. Not an easy task. Juventus are a rigid, stern side that aren’t easy to penetrate. However, don’t mistake rigidness for flexibility. Juventus can move players around, and use various attacking schemes, while still have players in proper position. Celtic won’t back down though, and they will battle you until the end. However, Pirlo will be the difference maker, as he can adapt to any style and still control the match. A draw is likely at Parkhead, but Juventus wins at home in the second leg and moves on to the quarterfinals.
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