Celtic and Manchester City now worlds apart but power of Celtic Park can level playing field

Richard Jolly previews the Uefa Champions League Group C contest between Celtic and Manchester City.
Pep Guardiola has overseen a perfect start at Manchester City with 10 wins but a trip to Celtic Park will provide a unique test. Rebecca Naden / Reuters
Pep Guardiola has overseen a perfect start at Manchester City with 10 wins but a trip to Celtic Park will provide a unique test. Rebecca Naden / Reuters

When English clubs meet their Scottish counterparts, their meetings are inevitably billed as ‘the Battle of Britain’. So it will be again when Celtic host Manchester City on Wednesday night but, whoever wins the battle, the war is already decided.

The Premier League’s vast financial muscle has determined it. Scottish clubs, along with those in other smaller leagues, find themselves fighting simply to stave off decline. Seventeen Premier League clubs ranked in Europe’s top 30, according to their annual income, in the last Deloitte Rich List. Celtic didn’t.

Yet while City were Uefa Champions League semi-finalists last season, Celtic outrank them in continental competitions. They were Britain’s first European Cup winners, in 1967. Fifty seasons on, a repeat is utterly implausible. They suffered their record European defeat, 7-0 to Barcelona, two weeks ago. They are Group C’s minnows.

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It was not always thus. It was seen as a coup for City when they hired the Celtic manager, Billy McNeill, who had captained the ‘Lions of Lisbon’, the team of 1967, to take charge in 1983. There was a perception defender Mick McCarthy traded up when leaving City for Celtic in 1986.

Now the Scottish champions’ squad features Patrick Roberts, loaned out by City to give him first-team experience. It includes Kolo Toure and Dedryck Boyata, defenders who can be portrayed as City cast-offs, and winger Scott Sinclair, who only played 250 minutes in his three-season spell at the Etihad Stadium.

The winger never found the net for Roberto Mancini or Manuel Pellegrini but has scored in his last six Scottish Premier League matches. Each goal is fuel for those who believe that the standards in Scottish football are low indeed.

But City would do well to heed Fernandinho’s warning. “Celtic are an excellent team, especially when they play at home,” the Brazilian midfielder said.

There is renewed ambition in Glasgow. If Brendan Rodgers seemed damaged goods in England after his time at Liverpool, he nonetheless represented an ambitious appointment by Celtic. He has brought a similar attacking ethos as Pep Guardiola.

Each has made an unbeaten start in domestic league football, and Celtic have outscored City, 23-18. Once again, that may reflect upon Scottish defences.

Yet, as Fernandinho highlighted, there is a further factor: Celtic Park. “We always feel we can challenge at home,” said Leigh Griffiths, the reigning Footballer of the Year in Scotland.

Celtic have not won in 15 European away games. On their own turf, however, they are a different proposition. If Guardiola cannot testify as much himself, many he knows can. The Barcelona team he bequeathed Tito Vilanova lost in Glasgow in 2012 — Tony Watt, now loaned out by League One side Charlton, scored a famous winner — and such is the fervent atmosphere in Glasgow that they are not alone.

Manchester United were beaten in 2006 and needed a late Ryan Giggs equaliser to avoid the same fate two years later. Over the last decade, AC Milan, Spartak Moscow, Shakhtar Donetsk and Benfica have all lost Champions League games in Glasgow’s east end. A cauldron of noise exerts its own power. Celtic Park can seem a throwback, but it means few are fully prepared for the intensity of an evening there. City’s 100 per cent record is put to a rather different test.

They venture north without Kevin de Bruyne but with Nolito, who is serving a domestic suspension, available again. They go there with Raheem Sterling, who sprung to prominence under Rodgers at Liverpool before an acrimonious parting of the ways, in fine form and Sergio Aguero having scored back-to-back hat-tricks in Europe. Yet this may not be a question of quality as much as a matter of character.

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Published: September 27, 2016 04:00 AM

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