Celtic FC manager Gordon Strachan is banking on a trio of "special" players to provide the creative spark in his side's opening Group E meeting with Danish champions Aalborg BK in Glasgow.
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Celtic FC manager Gordon Strachan is banking on a trio of "special" players to provide the creative spark in his side's opening Group E meeting with Aalborg BK in Glasgow.
The Scottish champions take their first tentative steps towards reaching the knockout phase of the UEFA Champions League – for the third season running – when the Danish titleholders visit Celtic Park. With his team having won all six of their home games in the last two group stages, the Celtic manager believes this match, and his club's fate in Europe's premier competition, will be decided by their ability to conjure something out of the ordinary.
'Moments of magic'
"When you look at most games in the Champions League, the very highest level, they're decided by moments of magic from top players," Strachan said. "Last season, when [FC] Barcelona came here, [Lionel] Messi turned up and made the result the one he wanted. He beat players, scored goals and took an already good side to another level. In Shunsuke [Nakamura], Aiden [McGeady] and Shaun [Maloney], we have special players who can do that. When they're at their best they can be decisive and hopefully they will play well."
Despite previous doubts over the availability of Dutch international striker Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and midfielder Paul Hartley, Strachan confirmed he has a full-strength squad to choose from, adding: "Jan's fine. He missed training this morning as his wife has just had a baby, but he was the only one who wasn't available. Paul Hartley, who didn't play at the weekend due to a neck problem, is also fit so overall we're in good shape."
Celtic's form going into Matchday 1 could not be better following their 4-2 victory at Motherwell FC on Saturday, achieved thanks to four first-half goals. For AaB, however – who suffered a 2-0 home defeat by AGF Århus at the weekend – the omens are not so good. With his side down to ninth place in the Danish Superligaen, coach Bruce Rioch said he understands why his players may have let their domestic form suffer as UEFA Champions League engagements loomed large.
"When the draw was made, my assistant was adamant I shouldn't speak to the players about it because we still had domestic matches to play," said Rioch, Scotland's captain at the 1978 FIFA World Cup. "But that's impossible. The Champions League is just so big. Realistically we know it will be very tough for us, but our target is third place. As far as I'm concerned, the team have already achieved so much just to reach the group stage – it's marvellous. Not to say we won't give our all, but anything we can get will be a huge bonus."
The former Arsenal FC manager went on to say that his knowledge of his Celtic counterpart Strachan goes back more than 20 years. "I tried to sign Gordon when I was manager of Middlesbrough [FC in the 1980s]," Rioch added. "He was a terrific player and he has become a top coach. I always say there are two cornerstones of success in any field – hard work and enthusiasm. Gordon has both."