Celtic v Milan: Serie A side bring big names & big threat in Europa League

By Liam McLeodBBC Scotland
Europa League: Celtic v AC Milan
Venue: Celtic Park Date: Thursday 22 October Kick-off: 20:00 BST
Coverage: Listen live on Radio Scotland DAB/810MW/online; text commentary on BBC Sport website & app

As Neil Lennon turns his attention to Celtic's Europa League group opener against AC Milan, he might recall the exasperation he felt after the club's last two games against the famous Rossoneri.

During his first spell - a year after humbling Barcelona - Lennon's side faced the Italian giants in the Champions League group stage and lost both meetings.

Unlucky, but undone late on in San Siro, before profligate finishing - particularly by Virgil van Dijk - in the return left Lennon scratching his head as they lost 3-0 in Glasgow and exited the tournament.

That was Lennon's final European home match of his first spell as Celtic boss but, remarkably, it was also AC Milan's last victory in the Champions League. Remarkable because they have lifted the European Cup seven times in their illustrious history. Only Real Madrid have won it more often.

Going on to lose to Atletico Madrid in the last 16 in season 2013-14, they have failed to make that grade ever since and have had to settle for the secondary tournament in the ensuing years. Indeed, their journey this season began in the second qualifying round against League of Ireland Shamrock Rovers.

However, having been banned from European football last season due to financial irregularities, they will be a major threat in this year's Europa League, let alone in Celtic's group.

An unbeaten start to the season at home and abroad, they top Serie A after four matches as they try and win a first Scudetto in a decade and end Juventus' stranglehold.

Victory in the Derby della Madonnina against city rivals Internazionale at the weekend has set them up perfectly for their trip to Celtic Park and their latest duel with Scotland's champions.

Midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu, who wears the Milan number 10 shirt previously made famous by the likes of Gianni Rivera, Ruud Gullit, Zvonimir Boban and Clarence Seedorf, will reportedly miss the game with a sprain.

However, there is more to this Milan side than the Turkey international, who scored against Scotland's Euro 2020 play-off final opponents Serbia in the Nations League last week.

How can fallen giants AC Milan return to greatness?

Players to watch

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

He still has it, after a stint in MLS, with Ibrahimovic scoring twice against Inter at the weekend at the grand old age of 39. And as he gazes over the Parkhead pitch on Thursday, he may remember his first European matches, against Martin O'Neill's Celtic in 2001, when he was a teenager in a losing Ajax side in the Champions League qualifiers.

Alexis Saelemaekers

The star-studded Belgian production line is showing no sign of grinding to a halt and the proof of that lies with 21-year-old Saelemaekers, who collected his first full Belgian cap this month. Milan haven't decided whether he is a midfielder or a right-back, but he has been a first choice for the Rossoneri this season on the right wing. Along with Portuguese youngster Rafael Leao on the left, he is likely to pose a serious threat.

Franck Kessie

Ivory Coast international normally sits beside Algerian Ismael Bennacer in the anchoring roles in the middle of the park. Kessie helped end Belgium's recent 12-match winning run with the equaliser in a 1-1 friendly draw during the October international break and has blossomed into one of the most consistent performers in Serie A under coach Stefano Pioli. The 42-times capped 23-year-old is also pretty handy from the penalty spot, although displacing Ibrahimovic from that role may prove difficult even if the veteran striker saw his weekend penalty saved against Inter.

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