Key battles: where Celtic can win or lose against A.C. Milan
There’s a famous Gordon Strachan quote from his time coaching in England that goes something like:
“So, Gordon, in what areas do you think Middlesbrough were better than you today?
“What areas? Mainly that big green one out there…”
It’s a funny riposte to a typical post-match question, but it’s still a good line of inquiry. Matches can be won or lost through two or three individual battles. Formation and team selection can give any football fan an indication of exactly how a match can go.
In fact, there’s a whole industry based on it, with xG now a popular stat (These Football Times).
While I’m no expert in the nuts and bolts of football analytics in terms of algorithms and numbers, I’ve seen a few matches in my time. With a struggling Celtic visiting the San Siro for a Europa League showdown with A.C. Milan imminently, let’s see where tonight’s game could be won or lost.
Yes, including the big green area.
Hatem Elhamed v Jens Hauge
Yesterday, we spoke about the likelihood of Stefano Pioli rotating his team to some degree. That’s exactly what’s happening, and one of the main beneficiaries is Jens Petter Hauge.
The winger, signed from Norwegian champions Bodo/Glimt earlier this year, has scored twice in 7 games. Those appearances have come predominantly as a substitute for the Rossoneri.
However, there’s clearly more to come in black and red; Hauge scored 14 in 18 Eliteserien matchs for his former team. His dynamic runs and precise finishing have already been seen by Celtic supporters this season, as Hauge added a third for Milan in their 3-1 at Parkhead.
Elhamed, who hasn’t impressed since returning from injury, really needs to keep Hauge quiet if Celtic are to have any chance tonight.
The Israeli right-back has only average 0.7 tackles in the Premiership so far this year (WhoScored?). A more robust defensive effort is needed against opposition like Hauge, who will look to add to his tally against the Bhoys.
Diego Laxalt v Diogo Dalot
Diogo Dalot only needed 6 appearances in Liga NOS to convince former Manchester United manager José Mourinho to fork out £19.8m on the Portuguese right-back.
Although not considered a starter for Stefano Pioli, who took to defender on loan for the season, Dalot has tended to start Europa League games for Milan.
The obvious subtext here is that Diego Laxalt will be facing his colleagues tonight. He’ll have a lot to prove in the San Siro, and another gut-busting display for the Uruguayan seems on the cards.
He’s been comfortably one of our best players since arriving from Italy, and the battle of the loanees will be a fascinating watch. If Laxalt can give Dalot a hard time, it’ll give plenty to give Pioli to think about in the future. A good display from Dalot, on the other hand, gives Manchester United representatives some food for thought, too.
Franck Kessié v Scott Brown
I have all the time in the world for Franck Kessié. A.C. Milan’s Ivorian midfield engine is an excellent player, one who isn’t afraid to do the ugly work but also pops up with goals and assists, all the while passing the ball metronomically.
You could reasonably argue that Kessié is comparable to Michael Essien or even latter-era Owen Hargreaves; a defensive midfielder with tenacity and excellent technical ability.
So far this season, Kessié has made 0.9 tackles and 1.3 interceptions in Serie A (WhoScored?), while averaging 91.5% pass completion in all competitions. He’s also scored 3 goals and laid on 2 in the league. If you were building a club from scratch with unlimited funds, and needed an all-action midfielder, you could do much worse than Kessié.
The man tasked with stopping him tonight is Scott Brown. Our skipper has admittedly been out of form, but this is the kind of contest he loves. Brown relishes in taking on reputable opposition, and it’s a chance for him to regain some confidence.
The point of European football is for clubs to test themselves against the best in the continent. If Broony puts on a show tonight, disrupting the Ivory Coast international, it’ll do him a world of good. However, if Celtic’s midfield back off Kessié, it could be trouble for the Bhoys.