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Celtic finally got a win under their belt as they beat Aberdeen 2-0 at Hampden Park on Sunday to set up a final with Hearts in the much-delayed Scottish Cup.
With the goals coming in the 18th and 23rd minutes it ended up being a very comfortable afternoon, though that was just their first win in five and this is a must win game if they’re serious about advancing beyond the group stages.
Fortunately for the Hoops, Slavia Prague are lacking a bit of sharpness as football in the Czech Republic was suspended in early October after the government introduced stricter coronavirus restrictions.
That means the visitors will have played just two games in the space of a month heading into this one, though Celtic have the opposite problem having played seven times since the start of October.
Sparta Prague might be too hot for their domestic opponents and have won all six league matches this term, but they’ve often found European appearances to be trickier and in fact, they’re just W1-D1-L6 sine 2017/18.
They’ve been thwarted in Europa League qualifiers by Red Star Belgrade, Sparta Subotica and Trabzonspor in each of the past three seasons, while in the current campaign they’ve so far been outclassed by both Lille (4-1) and AC Milan (3-0), with those their last two outings.
Sparta Prague have actually trailed at both half-time and full-time in each of their last six on the road in this competition, conceding at least twice in each as they drew a blank themselves on four occasions.
By contrast, Celtic have a pretty good home record in Europe where they’re W11-D1-L5 since 2018/19, while in the group stages alone they’ve won five of seven games over this period.
Neil Lennon has had to contend with some injuries of late, with the likes of Odsonne Edouard, Ryan Christie, James Forest, Nir Bitton, Hatem Abd Elhamed and Christopher Jullien all missing games.
However, only Julien and Forrest remain sidelined, and the Hoops looked a far more coherent team last time out when fielding something approaching their best line-up.
Lennon appears to have ditched the back three in favour of a 4-2-3-1 and this has also reaped rewards.
Summer signing Shane Duffy is less exposed in possession than previously, while the introduction of Milan loanee Diego Laxalt at left-back has also brought benefits.
Not only is the Uruguayan an upgrade in quality over Greg Taylor, but his overlapping runs have allowed Mohamed Elyounoussi the freedom to move inside, with the Norwegian now managing four goals in as many appearances.
Given the evident improvements Lennon and Celtic have made, we’ll be getting behind the hosts here, though we’d prefer to take them in the half-time/full-time market.
Sparta Prague have consistently been beaten early in their European road trips, while Celtic have led at the break in 14 of their 15 victories on home turf over the past 12 months.