AC Milan will kick off their 2020-21 Europa League group stage campaign with a trip to face Celtic on Thursday night.
The Rossoneri have gone 20 games unbeaten in all competitions since football resumed after lockdown including 16 wins, and have won seven out of seven across all competitions to begin the current campaign.
Celtic meanwhile lost their derby with Rangers at the weekend and have plenty of selection issues to contend with. We spoke to Lewis from The Celtic Star about what we should expect from Thursday’s opponents.
What were your reactions upon seeing that Celtic and AC Milan would be facing off again?
“It was a mixture of excitement and dread. Milan have been one of the form teams in Europe but they aren’t what they used to be, which was exemplified by scrapping past Rio Ave.
“Arguably, though, neither are Celtic meaning that two household names of European football will come together in Europe’s second competition. Milan was a box office clash and one that will likely determine who proceeds into the next round of the tournament.”
How much of a shame is it that fans won’t be allowed, and could home advantage have been a big difference?
“It was with a pang of angst that the draw was concluded with three top sides coming out, all of which would have been sold out I am sure. We had Italian opposition last year and the away support’s colour definitely encourage more from the home support to create a cauldron of noise.
“This was the stand out game and it is sad that it will be played behind closed doors. The lack of supporters will be a massive difference. The cliched 12th man is rolled out across Europe but you really notice how concentration can drop off when you don’t have 60,000 fans there to support and encourage you.”
You’ve been very dominant domestically for a long time now, what has been the foundation of that success and do you see it ending at any point?
“The foundations have probably come from a group of winners in the dressing room and that has come from the various managers in different ways.
“You see some of the players that have come through in recent seasons, Van Dijk, Forster, Dembele, Armstrong and even Ajer and Edouard. Neil Lennon was a winner as a player and now as a manager with Celtic, his firebrand passion is almost his trademark.
“Ronny Deila bridged the gap between that passion and desire to win with a professionalism and need to play more modern, attacking football. Brendan Rodgers was probably, for me, the reason Celtic have been so successful.
“He was the perfect combination of style and professionalism that meant Celtic could really go on and dominate Scottish Football. Since his arrival, it was 7 trophies in a row and when he left, Lennon returned and continued that, winning the next four out of four. Everything comes to an end but with Scottish footballing history in 10-in-a-row at stake, I hope it can last a wee bit longer.”
Which Hoops players should we be looking out for?
“Jeremie Frimpong has been a standout for Celtic this season, but we have been sub-par. He is able to carry the ball out of defensive areas, draw fouls and get the team up the pitch.
“He is quick, he has the ability to take players on and defend in 1v1s too. Ryan Christie has played well but he might not play, the same goes for talisman Odsonne Edouard.
“Two that are likely to start are Albian Ajeti, our summer signing, and Moi Elyounoussi. The pair have linked up well with each other but ideally Lennon will alter the formation to play to their strengths so hopefully the pair are in a menacing mood come Thursday.”
After the Old Firm defeat at the weekend, does this game now carry even more pressure?
“Maybe. Maybe not. There’s two ways to look at it, Celtic will want to bounce back but they have a tough game on Sunday against Aberdeen. They will need to improve on the performance even if the result isn’t what they want.
“The weekend’s result versus Rangers was really poor, maybe the worst for years with no style, fluency or spirit. This will be a good thing for Milan as if we don’t turn up again, you will likely have a comfortable evening.
“Although, I am confident that the players will show the fans at home that they are still capable of competing on all fronts this season.”
What kind of a game are you expecting between the two sides and how do you think Lennon will set up?
“I imagine Celtic will revert to a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3, the previously used 3-5-2 has been a bit unreliable with a lot of square pegs going into round holes so hopefully the manager has had the chance to balance the team but maintaining some attacking power.
“In true Italian fashion, I reckon it will be a cagey affair with both teams concerned with losing cheap goals, which has been something Celtic have been good at this year. I don’t think there will be many goals, so depending on who’s up for it I think it could go either way.”
Milan have been heavily linked with Kristoffer Ajer in recent weeks, what do you make of those links?
“He is of the ‘Norwegian Golden Generation’ and he will likely be the next big money move from Celtic. He is worthy of a big move and if it is Milan, he will have the blessing of the majority of the support.
“He is still immature in his play, he goes to ground too often in my opinion but he is strong on the ball and in the air.
If Celtic get £20m for him, it would be a fair price for a player that will go on and play at a very high level.
“He probably sees Celtic as a stepping stone to the Premier League or another big club. Celtic’s rivalry with Rangers and Europe are huge draws playing wise along with the fan-base and global reach but financially, they cannot compete with some of the wages on offer around Europe.”
What do you think of the Laxalt signing?
“A good signing, someone that I remember from the 2018 World Cup with Uruguay probably owing to his unique hairstyle as opposed to his style of play.
“In the game against Rangers he looked good, a bit leggy but definitely a shrewd signing and I am sure he will be keen to show Milan what they are missing.
“Theo Hernandez is a top player so you can see why he struggled to get into the team at the San Siro but I am hoping he flourishes at Celtic.”
Finally, a prediction for your starting XI and for the full-time score…
“My ideal team would be: Barkas; Frimpong, Jullien, Ajer, Laxalt; Brown, McGregor; Christie, Rogic, Elyounoussi; Ajeti.
“Although whether Lennon opts for this is anyones guess. Bitton and Elhamed are out so I think Lennon will change to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. Edouard and Jullien are doubts for the game but I am hoping Christie can return. The issue is I couldn’t name a best Celtic XI this season, such id lacklustre nature of performances across the board.
“I’ll go for 1-0 Celtic.”