The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

Well, this sucks…

As Brendan noted below, Arsenal ended up drawing Celtic in the final qualifying round for the Champions’ League. Once they disposed of Dinamo Moscow the other day, I was 100% convinced that we would end up drawing the Hoops, and that’s what happened. As previously mentioned, Arsenal is my primary team and I support them above all others (I qualify that because having a second team is apparently a sin on the level of murdering babies…at least if you ask commenters on message forums and whatnot), but I’m a Celtic supporter as well. The best option would have been for us to draw the tiny Romanian side and Celtic upsetting one of the other seeded teams to get in. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, so the Gunners will have to make do with what they’ve been given.

With that in mind, what exactly are Arsenal dealing with? The thing is, Celtic are a side very much in flux at the moment. The Gordon Strachan Era is over, with the requisite mixed feelings. While the Bhoys did haul in 3 league trophies during that time, the club rarely convinced and it could well be down to Rangers being awful more than anything else. On the other hand, Celtic also made it to the last 16 of the Champions’ League for the first time in their history, including a famous 1-0 win over Manchester United at Celtic Park (trust me, that link wasn’t hard to hunt down…it’s in my favorites and I watch it several times a week). Tony Mowbray is the man in the hot seat now though, and he brings with him a drastically-different style of play. Strachan was very much the manager of Coventry and Southampton, desperately clinging to enough 1-0 leads to stay in the division for another season. Mowbray is a talented manager who is committed to his eye-pleasing style, even when it would probably be better to bunker. While it’s not entirely surprising that Stoke survived last season and West Brom didn’t, Mowbray is in much better circumstances now. He won’t be seeing teams of the caliber of Arsenal or United every week, and he has some more resources to work with.

He has some work to do, though, as the first-team squad is not all that great. There is some talent there, but their best players tend to have a crucial flaw in their games that prevent them from being top players. In goal, Artur Boruc has a high talent ceiling but is wildly inconsistent. If Arsenal face the good version of The Holy Goalie, then they will have to work especially hard and/or come up with something special to beat him. If they face the Helen Keller version, then the tie will be won in humiliatingly easy fashion. That said, even the good Boruc may not be able to do much behind his back four. The central defense of Gary Caldwell and Stephen McManus are OK enough for the SPL, although they are somewhat error-prone even in that environment. At right back, Andreas Hinkel is a threat going forward but does neglect his defensive responsibilities on occasion. Essentially, he’s a dime-store Gael Clichy. At left back, well, ask any Celtic supporter about Lee Naylor…you’ll probably want to step back a few feet though to dodge the spittle from their frothing mouth. While I don’t know if he’s THAT bad, he’s definitely not all that good either…it is a problem position for Celtic and one of the keys to the tie will be Arsene’s selection at right wing. Whether it’s Theo Walcott, Andrey Arshavin or perhaps even Jack Wilshere, Arsenal absolutely must take full advantage of this weakness.

Midfield is a better prospect for the Bhoys, although this would be a much scarier tie for the Gunners if Shunsuke Nakamura were still around. His vision and passing ability in open play and his deadly set pieces would have given Arsenal no shortage of trouble. Without him, Celtic are missing the one player they had that could take charge of a close game and come up with a bit of magic to win it.

However, what they do have is a central midfield pair that is industious and not entirely devoid of passing ability. Scott Brown was scouted by just about the entire Premier League at some point this summer, and the only surprising thing is that no one made Celtic an offer they couldn’t refuse. He’s somewhat injury-prone, which may have something to do with it. When he’s in the team though, he’s a threat that will have to be dealt with. While Naylor vs. Arsenal RW may be the most important matchup of the tie, a close second will be Denilson or Song vs. Brown. Speaking of our defensive midfielders, it looks like Celtic may have the best one of the contest in their new loan signing, Landry N’Guemo. I haven’t seen him play yet, but the various Celtic blogs have been gushing about him, and by all reports, he was a big reason why they were able to navigate past Dinamo Moscow in the previous round.

On the wing, the one to watch is the mecurial Aiden McGeady. Arsenal fans will remember his type not-so-fondly, as he is basically an Irish version of Jose Antonio Reyes. On his day, he is wickedly effective, raking passes and crosses all over the field. He’ll also take players on one-on-one, which is unusual for a SPL player. The good news for us is that he has a tendency to ghost his way through games, and is as defensively capable as a ripped condom. The right wing will probably be manned by Shaun Maloney if Mowbray opts for a traditional 4-4-2. Yes, the same Shaun Maloney that flamed out so spectacularly at Aston Villa…so, there’s little to worry about there.

Much of Celtic’s depth is actually at central midfield, so Mowbray may end up going for a 4-5-1 to try and flood the center of the park, especially at the Emirates. Massimo Donati, who was marginalized under Strachan and reviled by Celtic supporters when he did play, has so far looked a different player under Mowbray. Another option is the young Spaniard, Marc Crosas. It’s a fairly-rare happenstance for a player to transfer from Barcelona to the Scottish league, and rarer still for the player to not make an immediate impact. Again, this could be a case where Strachan just didn’t get the most out of him (seems to be a pattern), and personally I hope he doesn’t play against us.

At forward, the only definite is that Scott McDonald will play. He’s tiny in stature and you’d think that the Arsenal defense should be able to corral him. But, he does have some pace and he definitely has an eye for goal. While he may not remind anyone of Henrik Larsson or anything, he does tend to score big goals. Who he partners is up for debate, as new signing Marc-Antoine Fortune did not impress in either of the Dinamo Moscow games. While it is lunacy to write off a player after two games, the magnitude of the situation may cause Mowbray to opt for Giorgios Samaras instead. Samaras was the man who put home the injury-time winner against the Russians, but Premier League fans will more likely remember his barren spell at Manchester City. He’s another one that will disappear for long stretches at a time, but he’s also the type of tall, physically-strong striker that has given our center backs fits in the past. If I have a paralyzing fear about this tie, it involves Samaras scoring off of corner kicks.

Still, Arsenal are a much better side, and should win this handily. The tie at Celtic Park will be difficult, as better teams than us have gone there and come home humbled like an Iron Sheik opponent. But, if Dinamo freaking Moscow can go there and win, I’m relatively confident that Arsenal can as well. At the Emirates though, there is no excuse whatsoever for the Gunners to not eviscerate the fragile Celtic rearguard. The only way I see Celtic winning the tie is IF Boruc plays out of his skin, IF Brown or McGeady provides some midfield magic, IF Arsenal takes them lightly, IF the caludron of Celtic Park puts a shiver up the spines of our younger players, IF McDonald gets some chances to score or Samaras punishes us on corners…for me, all of those ifs have to happen.

Official TSBS prediction:  Celtic 1-1 Arsenal, Arsenal 4-1 Celtic.

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August 7, 2009 - Posted by | The Arsenal

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