x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Celtic face uphill battle

Trying to interpret the thought process of a manager continues to be a peculiar old business, especially approaching the outskirts of such rabid nights.

Aiden McGeady, right, was an impressive performer for Celtic in the first leg.
Aiden McGeady, right, was an impressive performer for Celtic in the first leg.

Trying to interpret the thought process of a manager continues to be a peculiar old business, especially approaching the outskirts of such rabid nights. With the best part of 60,000 fans lending their support to the first leg of a Champions League qualifier with Arsenal, Tony Mowbray, a perspicacious observer not prone to vast bouts of experimentation, ordered out Celtic along the lines of 4-5-1.

Mowbray had spoken of a "cunning" plan to unsettle the Premier League side last Tuesday. This seemed only cautious. Georgios Samaras began as a lone target man. He became lonely. A 2-0 defeat has left Celtic in a bit of state before tonight's return leg. When Arsenal are good, they are very good. In Glasgow, they were lucky and good. An outrageous deflection hurtled into the net via William Gallas for the opener, but Gary Caldwell's own goal has left Celtic staring into the abyss. Or at least a place in the widely derided Europa League.

Ahead of visiting the Emirates Stadium, Mowbray is extolling soundbites that suggests he will throw the kitchen sink at Arsenal. Celtic could opt for 4-4-2. Arsene Wenger may do likewise with Arsenal, or go for a 4-3-3 that has a few variations. Celtic are on their way out unless they find goals. Up to £10 million (Dh60.1m) is available in the group stages, a prize that is never lost on the custodians of Celtic. This is good money to a club from Scotland. They could do with such a level of finance coming from the impoverished regions of the Scottish Premier League.

Both these sides fraternise with a passing ethos. This should make the second leg watchable. It would be foolhardy to imagine that Celtic are ripe to win. They may well get flogged. Celtic seem hellbent on throwing bodies forward, whether or not is it to their detriment. Scott McDonald and Marc-Antoine Fortune will lead the attack. Aiden McGeady, who was an expressive performer in the first leg, and Shaun Maloney will hope to invade from the flanks.

"We have to trust each other and have faith. I believe we can still surprise them in London," said Fortune. Cesc Fabregas, the Arsenal captain, is missing with a hamstring strain. Abou Diaby could come in. The problem facing Celtic is what they face. While Celtic were shredding St Johnstone 5-2 on Saturday in the SPL, Arsenal were also getting busy. Arsenal have been plundering goals, stuffing Everton 6-1 and Portsmouth 4-1 in the Premier League.

Celtic need at least two goals to force the match to extra-time. They held off Dinamo Moscow 2-0 in the previous round. It is finished if Arsenal score first. History suggests Arsenal should see this out with few problems. If Celtic come charging at them like the Jacobites on Culloden Moor, they will hardly go down in a blaze of glory. Chelsea managed a 4-1 win in the Premier League in May, the heaviest defeat Arsenal have suffered at the Emirates. That came only days after a 3-1 home loss to Manchester United in the last four of the Champions League.

United are not Celtic. They carried a 1-0 lead to the Emirates. Inter Milan departed the old Highbury with a 3-0 win in the Champions League, but that was six years ago. Even a few goals from Fortune and a smattering of good fortune may not be enough to save Celtic's soul this evening. In other notable qualifiers tonight, Sporting Lisbon visit Florence needing to score after a 2-2 draw with Fiorentina. Stuttgart hold a 2-0 advantage over Romania's FC Timisoara, who like Celtic, find themselves in a parlous situation.

@Email:dkane@thenational.ae