Evaluation of Champions League Group Winners – Part 1

After securing passage to the knockout stage of the competition, Celtic must now resume their domestic focus in both cups and the league. However, Neil Lennon’s eye will no doubt be averted to the Champions League round of 16 draw that takes place on Thursday, December 20th.

Having been in the same group as Barcelona, Celtic are void of any clash with the Catalan giants. This is a luxury that is well deserved, having performed so heroically at both the Nou Camp and Celtic Park. Celtic are the only Scottish team in the competition, meaning that they could face any of the other group winners. These include PSG, Schalke, Malaga Dortmund, Juventus, Bayern, and Manchester United.

PSG

A matchday sx win at home to Porto saw the Parisian side move to the top of Group A after a highly successful group stage. While PSG have struggled domestically, they had begun to pick up the pace in Ligue 1 until a 2-1 loss at Nice saw them drop back into fourth. However, they have given a fierce display in the early stages of the European competition.

Carlo Ancelotti’s side finished the group with fourteen goals for and only three against, a figure that was the lowest of any team in the group stages. However, several may argue that PSG had one of the easier groups in the competition, with Dynamo Zagreb not scoring a goal until matchday six, and Kiev never really threatening to qualify. The group was essentially a walkover for both PSG and Porto. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is proving somewhat of a revelation for the French side in Ligue 1, but has only managed two goals in the Champions League thus far. However, he currently leads the competition in assists, with five;  a figure that comes as a bit of a surprise.

The French outfit looked sharp from set pieces in the opening stage of the competition. Thiago Silva, Alex and Ibrahimovic are all players that are very dangerous in the air. On a defensive note, Alex has looked a little suspect on a couple of the goals that PSG conceded in the group. However, their goals against tally shows that they have been relatively comfortable with their defenders moving forward on occasion. Ancelotti prefers to set his midfield in a diamond which can quickly become a 4-3-3 depending on the position of the high man (usually Javier Pastore).

PSG Diamond

PSG Diamond

In their win over Porto in the last game of the competition, Lavezzi played much wider, in a standard 4-4-2 formation. PSG’s different setups throughout the group shows that Ancelotti is confident in his sides’s ability to adapt their system to fit the type of game they want to play.

Lavezzi in the 4-4-2 against Porto

Lavezzi in the 4-4-2 against Porto

PSG are relatively new to this era of European football and their experience may be called into question in the next stage of the tournament. Celtic however, are exactly the same if not more so, and a clash between the two sides could provide a very exciting encounter. PSG have clearly defended well and with exciting players like Lavezzi, Pastore and Thiago Silva, they do have a flair going forward. Celtic’s counter-attacking style in Europe this year could test the PSG defense particularly if Samaras remains fit and in good form and James Forrest makes a return from injury.

Verdict:

Neil Lennon should be excited if Celtic are to draw PSG in the next round. While the French side have done extremely well in their group, Celtic should fancy their chances. Anything can happen at Celtic Park and this matchup is bound to provide excitement and an element of the unknown. It is difficult to see the Celtic defense keeping Ibrahimovic quiet however, as they don’t really have the dominating center back that is required to do so. Ibrahimovic’s his ability to drop off and create space for Menez and Lavezzi as he did so well against Kiev means Celtic will either be bound to leave holes at the back, or the midfield will need to pick him up when he does so.

If these two sides are drawn together, don’t expect a low scoring tie. PSG have been prolific in front of net in the group stages. Celtic however, have the quality on the counter and in the wide areas of the field to punish the French side for midfield and defensive errors. This would be a decent draw for the Hoops with a realistic chance of progression.

Schalke

Schalke topped what was in all honesty, a mediocre Group B, with Arsenal never really looking in top form and Olympiacos making things appear close than they really were at the top with their matchday six victory over Arsenal. Schalke missed out on any Champions League action last year after their run to the semis two years ago. This year they are sure to be looking to replicate that run.

Huntelaar and Holtby

Lewis Holtby (left) and Klaas Jan Huntelaar have both attracted attention from Arsene Wenger

The obvious danger is Klass Jan Huntelaar up front for the German side. The Dutchman has four goals in five Champions League starts and is attracting much attention from English sides at the moment. However, Schalke also possess an embarrassment of riches when it comes to youth. Lewis Holtby, Julian Draxler and Papadopoulos have all impressed for Schalke for more than a year now, and all are 22 or younger. So far in Schalke’s European campaign, Holtby has been the central attacking midfielder in the team’s 4-2-3-1 sytstem. However, throughout the group stages as games progressed, that system became more and more of a 4-1-4-1 with the two banks of four. It is also worth noting that the seemingly forgotten Ibrahim Afellay is at Schalke and while never very consistent, Afellay can be a threat, particularly in advanced wide areas.

Verdict:

While Schalke currently sit fourth in the Bundesliga and are not as big a name as Dortmund or Bayern in world football at the moment, they are a genuine threat in the competition. While their group may not have been as high a caliber as many of the others, winning a group in the Champions League is never easy, no matter what and for they deserve respect. While Schalke do possess several quality threats all over the pitch, this tie would be kind to Celtic, given the quality of the other group winners. Accordingly, several of Schalke’s stars are very young, as noted before, and this is their first proper European campaign. It would be interesting to see how the young starlets perform at a raucous Parkhead.

Celtic have played few matches against German sides in recent history and the Hoop’s defensive discipline would certainly be tested as well as their ability to build a meaningful attack. Having said that, come February, we could see a very different Schalke side, as they have struggled domestically of late, and whispers are emerging that Huub Steven’s time as manager at the club could be coming to a close. They are no longer seem the rising star that they looked to be in October. Nevertheless, Schalke could very well be the dark horse of the competition.

Malaga

Manuel Pellegrini’s side have made a sensational start to their Champions League debut and made big spenders Zenit and Italian side Milan look average. With the loss of Santi Cazorla to Arsenal in the summer, Malaga have more than managed to hold their own in the competition.

Isco

Isco celebrates scoring in Malaga’s 3-0 thrashing of Zenit St. Petersburg

An interesting statistic about the Spanish side is that only in one of their group games did they have the majority of possession. This was in the 1-0 home win against Milan. The stat suggests that when in possession they are swift and incisive going forward, and indeed, a quick look at some of their attacking players suggests that. Javier Saviola plays as the highest man on the pitch, supported by the ex-Valencia man Joaquin. When looking at Malaga’s formation, it is clear that they play with quite a packed midfield, with their full backs as the only true wide players; a system not dissimilar to that of Barcelona’s. Another name worth noting is that of Isco, the twenty year old who has more than filled Cazorla’s shoes. The Spanish playmaker likes to sit just off the front two and slightly to the left as a high midfielder, or even deep striker at times. Isco also has an eye for goal, scoring twice in Malaga’s 3-0 home drilling of Zenit in the opening group game.

Verdict

Champions league newcomers Malaga have seemed more than comfortable in the group stages. They won their first three games, two of which were emphatic victories. After securing a point in the second game against Milan, Pellegrini effectively rested his best players and still managed two points in the final two games. Despite their strong start to the tournament, Malaga represent a realistic chances for a Celtic passage into the last eight. However, there is an irrepressible feeling that Celtic and Neil Lennon will want a high profile tie, and with all due respect to Malaga, this matchup would not offer that. While in Europe, Neil Lennon will want to continue to match his side against the very best, and being the overwhelming underdogs has suited Celtic thus far.

If drawn against the Spanish side however, Lennon will surely look to exploit Malaga’s narrowness in Europe. Celtic certainly possess the players to attack with width in Commons, Lustig, Izaguirre, Forrest and Samaras and Matthews. One needs only to look at their second group game in Moscow to confirm this. He may also want to employ a deep midfielder to help the back four cope with Malaga’s attacking players and this could be a massive opportunity for Beram Kayal to shine.

On a side note  if these two are drawn together, Javier Saviola will not have forgotten the last time he visited Celtic Park. It was a game in which he was sent off for a kick on Alan Thompson while playing for Barcelona in 2004. Barca went on to lose 1-0 and Celtic secured passage to the next round of the UEFA Cup. No doubt his return would provide an interesting story line and that will be brewing in the back of Saviola’s mind amid Celtic’s recent victory at home against the Catalan side.

More to follow with Dortmund, Bayern, Juventus and United in Part 2

Formation photos belong to UEFA

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