Well, folks, that was exceptional wasn’t it?
The result for starters; you can’t ask for more of a team playing at home than they keep that clean sheet and go to the away tie knowing they only need a draw. Yes, the result itself was good although a bigger cushion would have put the tin hat on it. More important than the result, in this case, was the performance however. Because it was excellent.
That might well be the best I have seen us play this season, and I include the other high points of the Pittodrie win and the Astana game at home.
We were dominant last night from first minute to last.
The closing down was quite brilliant. We defended as a unit. Players fought for each other. On the break we gave them plenty to think about. They packed their penalty box, but we still created chances. A moment of magic sealed the win, because that’s what it was going to take.
They are a very good team. We made them look ordinary. We passed the ball well, retained possession well, we controlled the key areas … that was, as Brendan described it, a mature and disciplined display. It seems almost insulting to the team overall to highlight individuals, but I thought Callum had a stormer and Dembele showed flashes of the class which have made him one of the most sought after players in Europe.
In fact, I thought Moussa had a fantastic night. His lay-offs, his vision, his ball retention, his hard work, it was all there. He’s coming back into his own, at just the right time.
But the real prize was in the middle of the park with the three man central partnership of Eboue, Brown and Ntcham. They were fantastic, all of them, but big Kouassi especially. For those who wondered why we bought him last January, last night should have answered all your questions. The critics in the media who had already written him off … more fool you. Did you really believe that Celtic had taken a blind punt with £3 million?
The irony is, we might not have played that midfield had all the players been fit; as I pointed out in the article yesterday (before Lustig surprised us with an appearance; swap him for Hayes at left back and put Michael Johnson on the wing and I stand by every word) we had an entire first team starting eleven out injured. Would Armstrong or Rogic have started? Maybe, but I don’t think we’d have been as compact, or efficient if they had.
The manager could have played a similar formation to that which one of them would have brought. He could have played Sinclair or Musonda from the start, dropped Eboue, put Callum in the middle … but he chose to play the tough tacklers, the ball winners, and you saw the results. We owned the middle of the pitch. We looked solid.
A couple of moments epitomised the game; one was Jozo Simunovic’s single mistake a of the match, a careless pass which went straight to a Zenit man. The team did not panic, and neither did the big defender. Instead they quickly won the ball back. Another was the moment, highlighted on TV, when Ajer let a ball go past him in a split second where he lost concentration. But what the TV commentary team failed to praise was the split second decision making that saw Ajer make a belated stab at clearing the danger … and succeeding.
That was how we approached the whole game, with a determination not to be caught out, to recover quickly from any mistake, and with a confidence and belief in themselves that I have not seen from our team in a good while.
The average age last night must have been in the early 20’s. Which means this team is still growing, still improving, still getting better. It is glorious to imagine this side, if it’s still together in five years, with all these guys coming into their prime.
This season we’ve taken a lot of stick for our European displays, yet to me the quality of the opposition has been ignored and major emphasis placed on a single game, the home defeat against the Belgian champions Anderlecht.
But it ignores evidence of progress.
We thrashed them away from home, in one of the best Champions League group displays I’ve seen from Celtic. We demolished Astana at home, and in spite of some of our defending away from home we scored three goals. On top of that, the Bayern game at Celtic Park showed us playing without fear against a top side and almost getting something. But for me the moment that marked our progress out above all else was 1-0 away win in Rosenborg.
That was a splendid result and between it and the Anderlecht result they offer us signs to be encouraged by, and especially for the match next Thursday.
Last night was superb. The whole team can take enormous pride in that display.
The manager gets all the credit in the world for picking the right team, crafting its shape and choosing the perfect tactics. The Celtic Park atmosphere was electric, the players were on the top of their game and the whole thing was capped by a beautiful moment from Musonda and a marvellous finish from Callum McGregor. All in all, it was a great night which showed us what this team can become. The rest of Scottish football should be very afraid of what that means.