Celtic face Malmö home and away in the coming week in two season-defining fixtures that will decide whether Champions League football will be heading back to Paradise this season.
Around this time last year, Celtic were looking forward to an away tie against Maribor with the club being reinstated in to the knockout stages in dramatic style. A solid 0-0 draw away from home left Celtic just needing a win at Celtic Park to progress. But the Hoops found themselves crashing out in the qualification campaign again with a late goal from the Slovakian side, leaving Celtic Park in (unfamiliar) silence.
Finding themselves against a similar level of opposition, Ronny Deila and co. will be praying for a different outcome to last year’s misery. Deila in fact could have been in the other dugout with the Norwegian revealing he had an offer to take over as manager before he became Celtic boss- showing they will be no strangers to the Boss.
Although a bit shaky at times, Celtic head in to the game on decent form. A 4-2 home win against Inverness at the weekend leaves them in second place in the SPFL where a top placed finish looks assured. But the 2-2 draw vs Kilmarnock last Wednesday night shows how not everything has been plain sailing so far for the Champions.
Malmö head in to the match in very good form, not losing a match since the start of July in the Swedish league. Currently they sit in fifth place and just four points off the top. Having lost their first leg 2-0 to Salzburg, a team in which Celtic lost 3-1 at home to last year, Malmö came back to win 3-2 on aggregate to set up this enthralling encounter. Not only does this show that Celtic need to be wary of their talent but that a good home win does not necessarily mean a Champions League spot is theirs.
Celtic must use height to their advantage in both ties against Malmö. New signing Dedryck Boyata has already proved himself to be a real goal threat with two goals to his name, and along with Virgil van Dijk (who’s been linked with a move to the Premier League) and Mikael Lustig set pieces may hold the key to a Champions League spot. This is also a factor in which Malmö suffer as they don’t have much height throughout the squad. Everyone knows at Celtic that Johansen has more than enough talent to place the balls into the middle so this is something Deila may address to the team before Wednesday.
Ciftci or Griffiths?
Or maybe both? Nadir Ciftci’s league ban has hindered any chances he could have had in the SPFL so far this season, but in earlier European qualification matches he has yet to register a goal. However, he hasn’t played all that bad either, and his hunger and strength is something Celtic may need to use for these fixtures. Leigh Griffiths, though, has picked up where he left off last season having scored four goals in eight appearances. Celtic fans have yet to see the two gel together and with a must-win home tie it would be interesting to see whether Deila will opt for two up front.
Celtic cannot concede an away goal this coming Wednesday if they are to progress to the UEFA Champions League. Although in the qualifying campaign so far the Celts have been a credit to themselves across Europe, Malmö will prove to be much tougher team to get a goal against away from home. If you believe in omens then it makes good reading though. Celtic have yet to concede a goal to Swedish opposition in Europe and have won three out of the four matches. But Malmö are undefeated against Scottish sides too, showing again how away goals will be vital for both teams.
SCOTT ALLAN: SECRET WEAPON?
Celtic unveiled new Bhoy Allan at half time on Saturday, receiving a wonderful reception the crowd. Growing up a Rangers fan and having bids from his boyhood club, the young midfielder has been labelled brave to join the Green side of Glasgow. But in football terms, as he put it himself, it really was a no-brainer. Allan was the Scottish Championship player of the year in the 2014-15 season with Hibernian as they narrowly missed out on promotion. The player is available for the European ties, but is unlikely to break into the first team with the host of talent in midfield already in Scott Brown, Nir Biton, Tom Rogic, Stuart Armstrong, Gary Mackay-Steven and Kris Commons. However if Celtic are in a tricky position late on in the first tie, Allan could well get off to the absolute dream rebut coming off the bench. He’s a tricky, young and fast player and Malmö will not know a lot about him, so this could be Plan B for Deila.
The fixtures seem to be perfectly poised. Malmö boss Age Hareide comments before that “Celtic are a good team but Salzburg are better” heading in to the match, adding that “Celtic are favourites in the first leg and we are favourites in the second”. Deila meanwhile remains positive after the teams recent win at the weekend, despite conceding two consolations late on.
Celtic v Malmö — Wednesday 19th August 19:45pm — Celtic Park
Malmö v Celtic — Tuesday 25th August 19:45pm — Swedbank Stadion
Celtic’s manager Ronny Deila gestures from the touchline during the UEFA Europa League group D football match between Celtic and Astra Giurgiu at Celtic Park in Glasgow on October 23, 2014. (Photo credit: Ian MacNicol/AFP/Getty Images)