With Celtic looking at their European opposition from the floor of Group H, a positive result for Neil Lennon’s men would go some way to lift the mood of supporters, for the time being at least.
Celtic’s European performances have been difficult to watch so far this season, but progression into the latter stages of the Europa League isn’t yet beyond the realms of possibility.
Here are 4 key areas where Celtic need to win key battles if they’re to topple Sparta Prague.
Keeping Julis quiet
To say that Czech striker Lukas Julis made an impression during Sparta’s 4-1 defeat of Celtic in the East End of Glasgow the other week would be understating the point just a tad.
The 25-year-old put Celtic’s defence to task, finishing the game with the match ball after stunning the Celtic backline.
If it’s to be a back two of Ajer and fit-again Jullien, or a back three which could include Hatem Elhamed, stopping Julis needs to be priority number 1 for the Bhoys.
Julis has managed 9 goals in 11 matches so far for Sparta Prague this season, albeit that’s a figure inflated by his productive antics at Celtic Park. Over the last three seasons, he’s not been the main man for the Czech side, but after bagging a hat-trick last time out, you’d expect to see him line up tonight.
His constant movement and ability to exploit Celtic’s lack of defensive coherency were used to devastating effect last time out. If Celtic are to shut out Sparta, it starts with keeping this man quiet.
Exploiting the left
Diego Laxalt and Moi Elyounoussi have been our most productive players so far, with the on-loan duo causing problems for opposition defences. Laxalt rescued a point at Easter Road in the game just past, and Elyounoussi has found the net consistently.
Coincidentally, they share an entire side of the pitch.
Andreas Aalen Vindheim and Michal Sacek will most likely be tasked with trying to disrupt the Uruguayan and Norwegian internationals, but in 270 minutes of Europa League football, Vindheim only managed 1.7 tackles per game and 0.7 interceptions (via WhoScored?).
Sacek, the recognised first choice right-back for Sparta, fares even worse, with an average of 1 successful tackle per match in the Europa League so far this season.
Vindheim and Sacek are there be played at, and if Laxalt and Elyounoussi can get some joy in this game, it’s by creating mismatches on the left flank and exploiting their inability to win the ball back.
High-intensity pressing in the middle
Sparta Prague predominantly like to get the ball to wide areas before taking the majority of their shots from central positions. When you think about it sounds pretty standard, unless your team has prime Roberto Carlos.
According to WhoScored?, the team aren’t proficient in creating opportunities using through balls, preferring to pass the ball short. This means that pressing with urgency can unsettle the Czech side.
Looking at the build-up Sparta’s second against Celtic, Karlsson was given too much space by a retreating Nir Bitton to advance the ball, while Julic didn’t have to bust a gut making space for his finish.
For Sparta’s third, Shane Duffy was caught out of position, leading to a 3 on 2 which Julic tidily finished. Ryan Christie ended up having to try to stop the inevitable, right in the middle of the Celtic goal-line.
This isn’t rocket science.
Defending set pieces
Much like the first goal for Hibs at the weekend, Celtic responded poorly to the ball breaking from a set piece. In the case of the weekend, it was a penalty, but for Sparta’s first against the Bhoys, poor marking from a corner was at fault.
Callum McGregor, one of our shortest players, was tasked with defending the ball as it came in. Unfortunately, he let his man get a free header which nearly breached the goal line, before Julic was allowed to finish from the ensuing chaos with consummate ease.
There have been multiple occasions this season where it’s looked as if nobody defending set pieces knows who their man is. Rangers exploited this to devastating effect and the Bhoys haven’t learned any lessons from that.
If Celtic can show some resolve in this area, it will immediately improve our results. The fact that we haven’t improved at defending set pieces at all this season is a real area of concern, and it’s no secret to anyone scouting us.