We’re now a matter of days away from Celtic’s return to the UEFA Champions League.
It’s just over 11 months since we last featured in the group stage of European football’s premier club competition. That night, we were taught a bit of a lesson by the holders Real Madrid, going down to a 5-1 defeat at their iconic Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.
That result capped off a challenging European campaign that saw us take just two points from six Champions League matches — the lowest total we’ve ever had in the group stage.
But the new season brings about fresh hope and expectation — the latter still existing even when Celtic are up against some of the best sides in Europe. And there are three players in particular that we’re expecting big things from.
It may seem a bit early to go all-in on Luis Palma, but we don’t really care. The Honduran may not even have played yet for Celtic, only making the bench for our derby win at Ibrox. Yet we have a feeling that his flair may be exactly what is required in Group E.
Palma netted for his country on Wednesday and should get some minutes this weekend against Dundee. He is a player on the rise and someone who will not be known to our opponents.
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Jota was arguably our top Champions League performer a year ago, netting two goals including a free-kick in Madrid. Palma could offer us the same attacking quality if he is unleashed.
Alistair Johnston hasn’t played in the Champions League yet. That may be a little hard to believe given that he seems to have been at Celtic for about six years. He arrived just after last season’s campaign and has only played against Scottish sides so far.
But you just know he’s going to rise to the occasion against Feyenoord, Lazio and Atletico Madrid. During the 2022 World Cup, he showed no fear while wearing a Canada shirt. The same is likely to apply for Celtic.
For all of Josip Juranovic’s undoubted quality, he actually proved to be a bit of a weak link at times last season. A number of the goals we conceded came down our right. To be fair to the Croatian, he was up against Vinicius Junior and Mykhailo Mudryk. But Johnston may prove to be a more robust option.
Finally, this group stage may be bigger for Kyogo Furuhashi than any other Celtic player. The Japanese forward has proven to be our talisman domestically, but he’s still to cut it at Champions League level.
Last season was a real disappointment for him as he failed to net despite being presented with some good opportunities. If he gets one on the big stage, you get the feeling more will follow soon after. That was the case in derby matches anyway.
If Kyogo is confident, chances are his team-mates will be too. It’s a big campaign ahead for the 28-year-old.