"A wee bit scary" was Gordon Strachan's take on the task facing his Celtic FC side who lock horns with English and European champions Manchester United FC at Old Trafford in a resumption of Anglo-Scottish hostilities.
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"A wee bit scary" was Gordon Strachan's take on the task facing his Celtic FC side when they lock horns with Group E leaders Manchester United FC in a resumption of Anglo-Scottish hostilities.
The Scottish titleholders gave as good as they got when the teams met in two memorable contests two seasons ago – losing 3-2 in Manchester before recording a 1-0 home success – but since then, as both managers concurred, United have got stronger while Celtic travelled south significantly weakened by injuries.
"Yes, it is a wee bit scary, they weren't champions two years ago and now they are English and European champions Their younger players have two years' more experience and the more you think about it, the scarier it gets," said Strachan, who is missing both his main centre-forwards, Georgios Samaras and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, and could ask the 173cm Scott McDonald to continue in the lone striker role he filled in Saturday's 2-1 win at Inverness Caledonian Thistle FC.
Vennegoor of Hesselink opened the scoring when United beat Celtic here in September 2006 having, by Sir Alex's admission, "ruffled up Rio Ferdinand" in what proved "a great European tie". Strachan, who is hopeful Gary Caldwell will play despite receiving stitches in a right ankle wound on Sunday, reflected ruefully: "It was a physical presence we've not got this time."
The sides' respective home and away records in the competition point to only one outcome: United are unbeaten in 16, Celtic without a win in 18. Yet Strachan felt his charges were getting closer with their performance in losing at Villarreal CF on Matchday 2. "I had a system we could play, for probably the first time since I've been here, and play it with confidence that everybody could play in that." That, however, came with Samaras leading the line and "because of injuries we have to rethink that".
Sir Alex has his own, more enviable predicaments. First whether to recall Carlos Tévez, absent from Saturday's 4-0 win over West Bromwich Albion FC in which the in-form Wayne Rooney claimed his eighth goal in six games for club and country. "It is very difficult trying to gauge whether I can play the three of them [Tévez, Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov] together," he said. "I think it is possible with one of them playing in behind." And then whether to rest Cristiano Ronaldo in favour of Nani, another weekend scorer. Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz told Sir Alex that Ronaldo, still recovering optimum fitness after returning from ankle surgery, had struggled with playing a second match in five days last week; Nani, by contrast, is "nice and fresh".
Sir Alex, missing Patrice Evra with a hamstring problem, predicts an open game. United do not want to drop any further home points having drawn with Villarreal here; Celtic need any points they can get after taking only one so far; and then there is, to quote United's manager, the "Scotland-England thing". He said: "Celtic will have a go, that is their nature, that is their history, driven on by a fantastic support which will be good for the game itself."