When referencing Pep Guardiola’s all conquering Barcelona side, Sir Alex Ferguson once said, “They get you on that carousel and they can leave you dizzy.” The rapid, fluid, interchanging of passes, known as “tiki-taka”, was the cornerstone to the Catalan’s success.
Now in charge of Manchester City, Pep’s carousel is less coherent, less well-oiled, though through design or a poorer selection of materials, remains unknown. What has impressed most about City so far this season is their flexibility in terms of playing styles. They often start with the fluid passing, subconsciously sucking out the opposition into areas of the field they would rather avoid. This drains the opposition mentally as well as physically – you have to imagine that the level of concentration required to marshal such dazzling play would be exhausting. Then when the opposition are ragged, lulled into thinking that the series of short passes is perpetual, the Citizens burst forward at pace, exploding forward using accurate long balls. For Celtic fans hoping that Manchester City will be a marked step down for the rigors endured at the hands of Barcelona, I fear I am the bearer of bad news. Pep’s side are the form outfit in Europe and look like genuine contenders for the continent’s top trophy.
Sergio Aguero, finally injury free, is as lethal as any of Barcelona’s attacking triumvirate. Raheem Sterling and either Leroy Sane or Nolito complete a predatory trident. Guardiola’s new look midfield of Gundogan, De Bruyne and Silva are easily the slickest of any outside of the Iberian Peninsula, while the defence, a source of continual ire for City fans, is at last looking solidified. The much derided John Stones in particular looking impressive.
Enough of the doom and gloom. Enough salivating at the embarrassment of quality at the opposition’s disposal. Let’s look at the ways in which Brendan Rodgers can utilise the squad and get something from this tricky tie.
What this Manchester City side has struggled with most is when gifted players take up the vacant space between the deepest lying midfielder (Fernandinho) and the back four. On Saturday City looked a little shaken whenever the Icelandic playmaker, Gylfi Sigurdsson, was able to ghost into these areas. This may be something that Rodgers could exploit, deploying the increasingly impressive Tom Rogic in this role. The way the muscular Aussie shrugs off challenges before either unleashing a vicious drive or a cushioned pass has been a delight. A big performance on Wednesday will could enhance his global reputation.
Manchester City have also shown a tendency to bring their fullbacks (more often than not it has been Kolarov and Sagna) inside to act as auxiliary midfielders. This allows the attack minded wingers more room to cause havoc, whilst also giving more options in the centre of the park, allowing Pep the option to rev his carousel to its dizzying best. However, it will also leave space should Celtic win the ball back for swift counter attacks. This, as every Celtic fan knows, has been a prominent part of Rodgers early work. Sinclair domestically has been untameable and even during the Camp Nou drubbing he instilled a sense of fear in the few occasions he was allowed the ball. James Forrest has looked completely unrecognisable from the shambling, confidence drained individual of last year and on current form looks to have the tools to cause harm. While I prefer Paddy Roberts he still looks a little hampered with his latest injury and has shown to be far more influential from the bench, running at tired legs.
The biggest dilemma that Rodgers will face is in selecting his starting striker. Moussa Dembele, a missed penalty against Barcelona aside, has hardly put a foot wrong since his introduction to the team. At his prowling best he looks like the perfect blend between power and poise. Leigh Griffiths however, offers something slightly different. He is more intelligent in his movement and more capable of the audacious – such as the sublime nutmeg and drive against Aberdeen. Whatever direction the gaffer chooses what we can all agree on is that the option to change his frontman is a welcome prospect.
The key to facing any Guardiola side it to limit the space in midfield. And therein lies Celtic’s biggest issue. Where Brown and Bitton bestride games domestically, bullying opponents, I harbour doubts that they have the mobility to continuously shuttle and harass. Perhaps it is the perfect opportunity to give one or more of the younger, fresher midfielders the opportunity to demonstrate their worth. Henderson has always looked capable and there looks to be some Lazarus type spell woven into the fabric of Armstrong’s shirt.
As nice as it is to be at the sharp end of elite football it is imperative that Celtic put in a good display. The players on Wednesday evening will be representing far more than the countless hooped fans across the globe, they will also be representing the entirety of Scottish football and all that, that entails. On European nights, when the floodlights illuminate and the fans’ voices reach their inspiring crescendo Celtic Park becomes an eerie cauldron where even the most unlikely can be achieved. Let’s hope that another of these legendary evenings is on the cards.