Football Expert & Columnist
Sam's the man
Celtic's Georgios Samaras can be infuriating, says Andy Walker, but he may be a key player in Moscow.
Last Updated: 01/10/12 1:17pm
Celtic go into Tuesday's Champions League away tie against Spartak Moscow as huge underdogs but as the astonishing performance of Europe's golfers in an unforgettable Ryder Cup success has proved, anything is possible in sport.
As the lowest ranked side in a group containing Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow, the odds are stacked against Neil Lennon's men being good enough to qualify for the knockout phase of Europe's premier club competition and a positive result in Moscow is essential if Celtic are to have any hope of progressing to the last 16.
It doesn't take a genius to work out that as huge favourites to win the competition outright, never mind the group, Barcelona look too strong to finish anywhere other than top of Group G. Consequently, Celtic's results against Benfica and Spartak will determine their fate.
Despite an extraordinary home support against Benfica on Matchday 1, Celtic dropped two points in Glasgow and will have to come up with some sort of game-plan to pick up something in the Russian capital.
Georgios Samaras and Joe Ledley were on the bench in the 2-0 SPL victory over Motherwell at the weekend but I reckon their international experience will see both playing from the start in this one.
In particular, you have to admire Samaras and his strength of character. For a long time he was derided by a large section of the Celtic support and even his manager stated that he was the kind of player who could get you the sack!
But Samaras keeps coming back for more and is so aware of his defensive duties as well as being able to create and score.
His cross right on the corner flag with his left foot enabled Kris Commons to volley home a vital first away to Helsingborgs in the qualifiers and Samaras himself scored the second.
The Champions League stage is certainly where a lot of Celtic players have the opportunity to show how good they are. Joe Hart is undeniably England's first-choice keeper but a place for a capable understudy is up for grabs.
Fraser Forster has improved immensely over the last 18 months and big performances from him in the group stages might just end with a call-up to the England squad.
At the other end of the pitch, Neil Lennon was talking up the chances of Gary Hooper catching Roy Hodgson's eye. Granted, the level of competition is not as high in Scotland as it is in the Barclays Premier League, but goals on the European stage against some of the best defenders on the continent brings huge recognition.
It has to be said, though, that three points in Moscow will be really tough. Spartak showed a fair bit of ambition in their first group tie in the Nou Camp against Barcelona by scoring two goals and will be looking to make home advantage count.
Like Neil Lennon's men, their recent form is impressive. Since that defeat in Barcelona, Spartak have won three league games in a row and are just four points off the top of their domestic table.
In stark contrast to their home form against the best Europe has to offer, the SPL champions' recent history in this competition tells you that they continually struggle away from home to get the kind of victories that can make all the difference.
The result in Moscow will go a long way to determine whether Celtic have a chance of finishing second in the group or, perhaps more realistically, are eyeing third spot and a place in the Europa League.