Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Milan Impress But Celtic Still Alive and Kicking

Celtic playing host to AC Milan in front of one of the most passionate and atmospheric stadiums in Europe should be a meeting of two footballing aristocrats.

Instead, as Celtic woke up to the realities of life at the top table of the Champion’s League, this was an enthralling clash between the aristocrats of Milan and the artisans of Glasgow.

That Celtic are still very much in the tie, that progress to the last eight remains an unlikely possibility, is a testament to the spirit that Gordon Strachan has rebuilt in his team since they crashed out of this tournament in the qualifying round last season.

The feeling persists, however, that Celtic will struggle to raise their game in the return leg. Or that even if they do Milan will simply step up a few gears of their own. Strachan’s admission that he would give his side on five out of ten for technique was a stark reminder that dominance in Scotland is not preparation enough at this level.

Celtic’s defence was sound. The goalkeeper Artur Boruc was called upon to make only one save that could be described as out of the ordinary. But it was a solidity that required two holding midfielders in the centre of the park. That undoubtedly robbed Celtic of the chance to attack Milan through the middle. In his 100th Champion’s League game Paulo Maldini will no doubt be relieved that his aging legs were never tested by the pace of Kenny Miller or the strength of Jan Venegoor of Hesselink.

In the centre of midfield Neil Lennon and Evander Sno performed heroically for Celtic. But it must be noted that Milan’s Rene Gattuso was able to perform their two man job on his own, in doing so freeing up Kaka and the rest of Milan’s rich talent to drive forward. And when they came forward it was with a pace and skill that we rarely see in Scotland.

Aiden McGeady and Shunsuke Nakamura didn’t receive the service to impact on the flanks: and even when drifting inside were too well marshalled to create opportunities.

And yet. Miller had a couple of half chances that a striker with more confidence might have converted. Nakumara’s two free kicks were disappointing but showed that Milan are not immune to giving him opportunities on the edge of the box. Thomas Gravesen’s introduction, as Lennon visibly tired, gave Celtic an impetus that proved they could ruffle Milan.

And, but for that one save from Gilardino, Boruc was barely troubled.

Still though the feeling persists that Milan looked at this game as one to come through unscathed. The football equivalent of “rope a dope.” Celtic will hope they can put that strategy to the sword in the San Siro.

That will, as Strachan conceded, require an improvement in technique and self belief that Celtic have rarely shown away from home in this competition. And few will have been shaken from the belief that spirit and effort are highly commendable but will only carry you so far in this competition.