When the group-stage draw was made for the Champions League at the end of August, both clubs will have considered finishing second behind defending title holders Real Madrid as achievable, given that the fourth team in Pool F is Shakhtar Donetsk – the Ukrainian champions forced to play away from home in Warsaw and under the spectre of a war in their homeland.
Yet it is Shakhtar, who go to the Santiago Bernabeu this gameweek, who are sitting second in the table, three points clear of Celtic and and four points ahead of Leipzig by virtue of a stunning 4-1 win in the Red Bull Arena followed up by a creditable 1-1 draw with the Scots in Poland.
It means the margin for error in the old German university city, located in the east of the country and renowned for its culture and vibrancy, is slim for both: they need a win to take advantage of the likely defeats coming Shakhtar’s way.
RB Leipzig are not the same team that so meekly collapsed against the Ukrainians on matchday one. Domenico Tedesco, the manager who led them to last season's Europa League semi-finals before losing to Rangers, was sacked early last month and replaced by Marco Rose. Since he took charge of his home-town club, there have been two convincing home wins over Borussia Dortmund and Bochum either side of back-to-back away defeats to Real Madrid and Borussia Monchengladbach. Leipzig are currently 11th in the 18-team Bundesliga – but they are playing better in what is largely viewed as a new chapter for this club, in need of rejuvenation following its bombastic arrival on to the European scene in 2017.
Former Chelsea forward Timo Werner is the biggest name in the Leipzig squad. The 26-year-old enjoyed four fruitful years with Leipzig prior to his move to London in 2020 but he returned to the Red Bull Arena in August and has notched six goals so far, including a double in the last match against Bochum. He has a fluid role in an attack-minded team that also includes Hungarian internationalist Dominik Szoboszlai and French forward Christopher Nkunku. There are lots of goals in this team.
Not that Celtic aren’t blessed with a bad armoury. Far from it. While Ange Postecoglou’s men were off-colour against Motherwell and lost recently to St Mirren, Kyogo Furuhashi and Jota continue to create and threaten, while midfielder Reo Hatate is in a rich vein of form. Perhaps they have lost a little of their usual ruthless edge but the fashioning of chances is certainly not an issue.
“You have to say, it’s great fun to watch Glasgow Celtic, especially their Japanese players,” Rose said in his pre-match press conference. “It’s very noticeable how strongly these guys shape the game.
“They’re small, bustling and extremely uncomfortable [to play against], especially in one-on-ones. They also have a great mentality. They can decide the game with their individual actions.
“Overall Celtic have a very exciting and clear game idea. Similar to us, they try to interpret football actively, to align the game offensively and to put the opponent under pressure.
“The team has a very high willingness to perform and is also very hard-working. Ange Postecoglou is doing a really good job at a great club.”
The biggest concern for Celtic is how their defence can cope with Leipzig’s livewire attack. We know they are a threat themselves when pressing the opposition but with linchpin centre-half Cameron Carter-Vickers ruled out of this match due to injury and his regular sidekick Carl Starfelt also absent, the onus will fall on Stephen Welsh and Moritz Jenz to be the centre-half pairing once again. They are a fledgling partnership and will be required to step up a level once again in Germany. In eight away European matches under Postecoglou, Celtic are yet to keep a clean sheet, and the Australian has said on multiple occasions that he will not curb his risk-and-reward outlook on football, which leaves his centre-backs exposed at times.
As a pot four team, ahead of the draw Celtic were largely expected to be gunning for third place and parachuting into the Europa League after Christmas. But the strength of Shakhtar Donetsk and RB Leipzig is not overwhelming by Champions League standards. Postecoglou and his players have a presentable opportunity in front of them. A draw in Germany would be far from disastrous but only a win would cancel out Shakhtar’s surprise exploits.
Even still, Postecoglou stressed that points at Champions League level are not easy to find.
He said: “Every game is a challenge – that is the nature of the competition.
“Leipzig are a top-quality team and at their home it is going to be a fantastic challenge for us a football club and so we just need to keep performing at the levels we can.
“The first two games have been pretty good from a performance perspective.
“We felt we did well for about an hour in the first game but we did fall away, the second game, our performances was strong.
“We could have won but it is not just about performance, it is about the opposition as well so we will just prepare ourselves to play well and see what that brings us.”
Rose was far more bullish on his team’s ambitions. “We want to continue to play in the Champions League,” he said. “To do that, we have to show attitude against Celtic and, like against Borussia Dortmund and Bochum, we have to play well at home.
“If we play with a lot of energy, power and passion and with courageous football, there is a high probability that we will reward ourselves with the three points. If that’s not the case, it will be very difficult to get through this group stage.”