- Celtic's Champions League ChallengeThis season's opening group game, in the Champions League, saw Celtic visit one of the greatest arenas in world football, Camp Nou. Unfortunately, Barcelona were in great form that night and outclassed the Hoops with a 7-0 thrashing. Even when you consider that the Celtic players showed Barcelona too much respect that night, there is a clear gulf in quality between the two sides, with Barcelona being several levels above.
The Scottish champions once again face off against the might of Barcelona
The bright lights of Paradise will beam down upon us tonight, is a Celtic victory in sight?
Given the state of affairs Celtic found themselves in just one year ago, where our European performances often featured calamitous defensive errors and a lack of ability to win a Europa League group match, just qualifying for the Champions League group stages is a huge step forward.
Brendan Rodgers inherited a squad of players who, despite being champions, lacked confidence. The departing Ronny Deila admitted that the job was too big for him and it was noticeable in our performances. When Rodgers was appointed, he identified areas of the team that needed strengthening and his acquisitions thus far have dramatically transformed our fortunes. He did what his recent predecessors couldn't, he qualified for the Champions League group stages on his first attempt as Celtic manager.
Huge credit is due to the Irishman for that early achievement and the experience gained this season can be taken forward for future attempts at Champions League qualification. There's no secret that the exposure and financial advantages of being in this competition will enhance Celtic's ability to attract good quality footballers to the club, as well as having such a high profile manager running the team.
Tonight, they face arguably the best team in the world, with the greatest player in football history leading them. Lionel Messi missed Barcelona's previous game against Malaga through illness, but should be fit to return to the Catalan side's starting line up. Despite being unquestionably the greatest player to ever play the game, even Lionel Messi has experienced the bitter pill of defeat at Parkhead.
Celtic are underdogs in every Champions League game this season, but with the backing of the fans, there's always a little hope. Rodgers' team will need to be performing at their very best in order to win tonight, as any mistake at this level of football is punished swiftly.
Even without mistakes, Barcelona's front three of Messi, Suarez and Neymar are more than capable of tearing any defence in the world to shreds. The trio have scored a combined 286 goals between them, since Luis Suarez signed from Liverpool in the summer of 2014. That statistic is as staggering as it is frightening.
Sitting second in the league, Barcelona have suffered two defeats this season, proving that they are not invincible. They have defensive weaknesses and Celtic do have quality in attack. No-one is pretending that the Hoops' attacking options are as potent as Messi and co, but Moussa Dembele has been setting the heather alight this season. He has proven that he can score at this level and will want to solidify that tonight with goals against Barcelona. Likely to be on the bench, Leigh Griffiths, the 40 goal sensation from last season, will be desperate to get on the park and prove himself too.
The attacking movement of Scott Sinclair has the potential to open up space for Celtic in the final third, making him a key player for a chance of victory. On the right, Rodgers has the option of Forrest or Roberts. Roberts' trickery will help ease pressure off the defence and provide a good outball, while Forrest's pace could be vital in getting in behind a high pressing Barcelona side.
Behind the striker, the technique and passing of Tom Rogic is likely to be employed. His ability to hold on to the ball under pressure will be an essential attribute as Celtic won't the majority of possession tonight.
What about the centre back pairing? Which of Simunonvic, Sviatchenko and Toure will start? Or will it be all three, with two wing backs? Whichever defensive set up is employed, they are going to have an exhausting evening. Rodgers will need to use all of his tactical guile when instructing his team on how to defend, while relying on club captain Scott Brown to show great leadership and composure on the pitch.
This brings us to the question of who will partner Brown in midfield? Some argue that Armstrong's work rate will make him the ideal candidate, while others lament his inability to keep hold of the ball. On the other side of the same coin, Nir Bitton is adept at keeping hold of the ball, but many question his work rate. This is widely recognised as an area of the squad that needs improving in the next transfer window, to help Celtic compete more effectively at this level of football.
Sadly, the next chance to sign a player is January, where Celtic could well be out of European competition for the season, unless they achieve the unlikely victory tonight. 60,000 Celtic fans will be raising the roof in hope of that come 19:45, where the best fans in the world come to unite.