Credit: Boris Paladino
The San Siro will be hosting a clash between two successful European sides. In other news, water is wet.
It must be said, only the home side are currently living up to the tag of being successful in Europe, and arguably successful, full stop at the moment. Currently aloft the Serie A are AC Milan, hunting down their 19th Italian title and rejuvenated by the coaching of Stefane Pioli. Their opponents on the other hand, are having a torrid time both on and off the park. A season which had so much promise for Celtic seems to be snowballing into a disastrous end game.
The Parkhead side have managed just two wins in their last ten fixtures. Their domestic cup dominance came to an abrupt, but not shocking end last Sunday when they put up a lackadaisical showing, crumbling away to a 2-0 cup defeat to a Ross County side who sit 9th in the Scottish Premiership. This ended a 35 game winning streak in domestic cup competitions. Their previous Europa League game saw Sparta Prague defeat them 4-1, for the second time. This loss saw Celtic sort of just limp out of the Group Stages, without any real fight or promise in the previous four fixtures, perhaps outwith a positive 60 minutes in Lille.
The Red and Blacks will be rubbing their hands in anticipation in the run up to this match. A win here could put Milan top of Group H, depending on the result of the Lille vs Sparta Prague game. A position which Pioli and his men will be desperate for if they have aspirations of winning their first Europa League, but by no means their first European trophy.
Milan have quite brilliantly only lost 1 in their last 28, the defeat coming at the clinical hands of Europa League group rivals Lille. Veteran striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic at 39 years of age, is still putting in some of the best performances of his career, with a return of 10 goals in just 6 games for the Swede in Serie A. He has single-handedly scored just under half of their goals in the league. Such a strong start to the domestic season has this team riding very high on a wave of confidence, and look the overwhelming favourites to take the three points.
As much as Celtic can never be typically ruled out of a European tie, this game is a little different. The manner of performances in which Celtic have displayed all season, have been a shadow of previous years standards. Despite no real tangible European success in recent years, Celtic would have been heavily encouraged by their performances in the Europa League last season. They topped their group, beat Lazio 2-1 home and away and their only loss came in an away defeat to Cluj in what can only be described as a “dead rubber”. They had already sealed qualification to the Round of 32, where they were knocked out by a Copenhagen team many felt they should have defeated.
This poses the question, why are they playing so poorly? Which is not a very easy question to answer. There have been a lot of warning signs, very out of character for this Celtic team.
There has been discontent in the squad, with Neil Lennon openly coming out and saying “some players don’t want to be here” after a 2-1 home defeat to Ferencvaros in the Champions League Qualifiers in August. None of these players left the club, which could suggest there is still an unrest. They’re now 11 points behind rivals Rangers in the Scottish Premiership, albeit they have two games in hand. But their recent run of form and general performances all season does nothing to suggest that the two games in hand are a certainty to win.
Off the park in Glasgow, fans have protested against the team’s recent performances, against the Celtic board’s handling of the situation, and ultimately to voice their discontent that Neil Lennon is still in charge. Meanwhile, Neil Lennon has claimed that he has the “full support” of the Celtic board to turn it around. And the latest Celtic statement regarding the protest echoed Lennon’s claims loudly, a series of “positive Zoom calls” have been at the heart of this. It’s all getting a bit messy.
Although this match in the Europa League scheme of things for Celtic means nothing as they’re out regardless, it gives them the platform to show just the slightest bit of hope to their fans. A hope which seems all but diminished, and it’s only December.