Stokes' fine form gives Lennon food for thought
Dubliner in line for San Siro start as manager puts Hoops on alert over 'world class' Balotelli
Which AC Milan will Celtic face at the San Siro tonight?
The question absorbs Neil Lennon as he and his players embark upon a Champions League group campaign even more daunting in prospect than last year's engagements in the same tournament, which saw the Hoops emerge as the surprise package in a section which also included Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow.
It is not in doubt that the Rossoneri are in a passage of transition. They have won once in their opening three Serie A fixtures and they needed six minutes of injury-time and a Mario Balotelli penalty kick to scramble a 2-2 draw away to Torino last Saturday.
Lennon, who watched the proceedings, noted that Milan switched from their customary formation to a 4-3-1-2 in which they looked uneasy for significant periods of the match.
"The only thing that surprised me was the change of formation," said Lennon. "They've been a quite rigid 4-3-3 but they played a diamond at the weekend, although maybe that was just to combat Torino's back three."
The prevailing opinion in Italy is that Massimiliano Allegri altered his disposition to accommodate the return of Kaka, in which case the coach should not be under any such compulsion tonight, the Brazilian having been ruled out through injury.
Milan reported nine injury doubts but it can be taken for granted that the number has been pitched high as part of the customary pre-match gamesmanship. Lennon, whose nous at this level has increased exponentially, was swift to discount the notion of embattled opponents.
"People read too much into that," he said. "This is a team that beat Barcelona 2-0 last season and at home they're a pretty formidable team so regardless of a few injuries or call-offs they'll still be immense opponents to come up against.
"Balotelli is a class player and having watched him the other night – it was the first time I've had a good look at him – he's a world-class striker.
"The majority of Milan's good play comes through him. For all that people want to criticise him, he's a top, top player. People look at him and say that he's a bit moody but the more you rattle him the more he responds to it. But you can't just concentrate on Balotelli.
"There are so many good players that we need to be wary of. I don't read too much into his off-the-field problems. I like him, just watching him play. I'd have him in my team, put it that way."
Lennon has his own selection conundrum has he plots how to take the game to opponents who, for all their domestic travails, demonstrated that they could raise their game when they beat PSV Eindhoven 4-1 on aggregate in the play-off round. Georgios Samaras is Lennon's most reliable scorer in European ties but Anthony Stokes is the form striker.
Milan exhibited vulnerability on the right of their back line against Torino and Samaras has proved effective in coming in from the left. Summer signing Derk Boerrigter offers speed and directness in the same area, which gives Lennon the option of playing him with Samaras leading the line through the middle, in which case Stokes would have to cool his heels on the bench.
"We've got plenty of that," said Lennon, when the issue of pace was raised. "You're hoping to use that to your advantage but what I want is to try to get a foothold in the game and have a fair share of possession."
Asked if he had pencilled Stokes in for a start, Lennon replied "that's a good question" but offered no further illumination. Samaras, meanwhile, was forcefully positive about Celtic's chances.
"We've not come to Italy to lose," said the Greek. "We want to go into these games to really enjoy them, express ourselves and try to win. We don't come here with the mentality that we're playing against a big club we must fear. We don't have the mentality as a club or as a team to be losers."
Samaras declared before the second leg of the play-off against Shakhter Karagandy – whom Celtic at that stage trailed 2-0 – that he was motivated by anger at the outcome of the first instalment. That particular drive was evidently assuaged by Celtic's subsequent 3-0 home victory.
"I'm calm now," said Samaras. "After the first game against Karagandy it was impossible for me to accept going out of the Champions League to that team.
"Now I'm more relaxed. We are playing AC Milan, and I just feel really happy with myself, my team-mates and the club that we achieved our target – our target of getting back to the group stage.
"I have played over 200 games for Celtic and Karagandy was the one and only time I've been angry. Maybe the gaffer will do something before this game to make me angry."
Well, leaving Samaras out to accommodate Stokes might do the trick, but with the effect of displacing the Greek striker's emotion on to the bench.
The Dubliner, though, will find it hard to argue with his team-mate's record of six goals in Celtic's eight most recent Champions League games away from home – in which case Samaras' record trumps Stokes' present return.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)
AC Milan v Celtic, Live, RTE2/Sky Sports 2, 7.45