Tonight represents a unique opportunity for Celtic Academy graduate Stephen Welsh
What a moment tonight is for Celtic youngster Stephen Welsh.
Fine, the centre-back may have featured in the Europa League last season. He played three times, avoiding our heaviest defeats in the competition in the process.
But he was absent for Celtic’s Scottish Cup victory against Hearts, as the Bhoys completed the Quadruple Treble. Sure, he’s featured against Rangers, and in other league outings, but in terms of the ‘big occasion’? This is the one.
And he does so as Celtic’s most experienced centre-back. Provided Christopher Jullien doesn’t make a miracle return to the line-up tonight, it’ll be Welsh who leads the back-line against FC Midtjylland. That, in itself, is a concern.
No doubt, there are deficiencies in Welsh’s game. His positioning can be suspect, especially in a defence with such a disciplined line as Postecoglou wants from his team. Last season, he won the Bhoys 0.9 offsides a game [WhoScored?], and you’d hope for more this season, under Postecoglou’s higher line.
While his tackling is efficient, making 1 challenge per 90, only conceding 0.6 fouls, his reading of the game could be better. Welsh makes 1.5 interceptions a game [WhoScored?]; hardly bad, but not outstanding either.
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So, statistically, he’s relatively solid. However, this is undoubtedly a huge moment for the Scottish young international. The responsibilities are different, and he’s been left as our first-choice centre-back, considering injuries and player departures.
Can he do it?
We’ll never get to see how the Ajer and Stephen Welsh partnership might’ve blossomed
It’s only a matter of time before Kristoffer Ajer departs the club, and unless Carl Starfelt is being kept under wraps for some reason, we lack depth at centre-back.
One of the biggest shames of that, beyond the obvious point of one of our best players leaving, is that Ajer and Welsh were starting to form a decent duo at the back for Celtic.
Towards the tail end of last season – barring a shellacking from Rangers – Celtic were conceding fewer goals [Transfermarkt]. The duo’s performances against Motherwell, St Johnstone, Aberdeen, Hibs and Livingston indicated there was potential there.
Now, save for a last-minute change of heart, Welsh won’t have that. The cool head of Christopher Jullien won’t be available to him for a while yet. Welsh seemed to be taking some positives from Ajer’s game, but he won’t be able to do so. Now he’s the main man.
It reminds a little of Jack Hendry before our meetings with AEK Athens [Transfermarkt]. Boyata, who was either forcing a move or struggling with injury, depending on what you believe, was unavailable, leaving Jack Hendry to play alongside Jozo Simunovic, who wasn’t completely match-fit. Harsh as it sounds, tonight’s likely partner Nir Bitton isn’t a natural centre-back, and will need to take his cues from who he’s alongside.
Even with an admittedly blunter FC Midtjylland at Paradise tonight, the Danes have real threats on the wings, specifically Pione Sisto. Against AEK, Hendry struggled to co-ordinate the back-line against the threat of Rodrigo Galo. It was Hendry’s last real game of note for the Bhoys.
Will Celtic Academy graduate Stephen Welsh rise to tonight’s challenge, where Hendry struggled? Certainly, there are good signs in his game, but he’s a rough diamond.
Celtic might need Welsh’s best efforts yet
Fine; Midtjylland are also in a rough, transitional place. However, if we’re going to advance in Champions League qualifying, the misshapen lump of clay that is the Celtic squad will need to be better than the sum of its parts.
The Danes are still a good side. While Europe may not be the priority for many this season, a disappointing result to kick off 21-22 could destabilise the good feelings generated by Ange Postecoglou’s post-arrival honeymoon period.
Welsh is going to be absolutely key to Celtic tonight. If he plays well, and is able to lead this make-shift defence, we could be on to something. It’ll require a level of performance that Welsh has hinted at, and he’s looked good in pre-season.
It’s too early to call this a sink-or-swim moment, or something defining in Welsh’s career. But we’ve seen with Jack Hendry how crucial these kinds of matches can be in a Celtic jersey.
For Celtic man Stephen Welsh, tonight could be the making of him.