Well, the game played out as expected last night. Even if my nerves were tested at times, this was a case of job done.
Qarabağ played exactly as I imagined they would. The big surprise for me was that Ronny Deila deployed holding tactics.
This was the right move away from home though. Qarabağ’s European results in recent years demonstrated they were not an attacking side home or away.
Although they offered more in attack in Baku last night, Celtic also allowed them more of the game. They were the ones chasing a goal to stay in the tie but their tactic appears to be drawing out their opponents and hit on the break.
Celtic didn’t play ball and both the defence and defensive midfield played a blinder. Our attack was sporadic and largely ineffective but this was not a game we had to win.
As I said from the first leg, Qarabağ make good use of the ball and postion themselves well. It’s a quality they can build on for sure but Celtic played them at their own game and even though I would have felt more comfortable with a goal we came out on top.
Bitton and Brown were fantastic, chasing down the ball, breaking up the play, taking the heat off our defence and even trying to create moves for our attack. The defence were equally effective and played a key role in keeping the goal protected and moving the ball forward and despite Gordon flapping at one cross he pulled off the save of the match.
Lustig and van Dijk were their usual selves, performing how and when it matters. I’ll single out Boyata though as I criticised him in a previous blog.
I thought he stepped up his game last night, stood firm throughout the match and kept his focus. On the left Izaguirre played a more defensive role than he normally plays but be coped well over all.
Sadly our attack was static and once more Ciftci was lacking pace and movement. Mackay-Steven, Armstrong and Johansen didn’t play badly but they didn’t over commit themselves such were the tactics deployed.
Griffiths (67), Commons (79) and Forrest (84) kept things moving as the game moved into the final third. It was hot, it was late and legs were getting tired.
All in all I think this was a test of Celtic’s patience and character. To stay disciplined and organised despite the temptation to attack showed some real maturity for what is a reasonably young team.
It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t say something about match referee Martin Strömbergsson. Tbe Swedish official was diabolical.
It’s fair to say I was tense going into this match. His blatant refusal to award stonewall free kicks to Celtic though was astonishing.
I stopped counting after 7 denials. There must have been at least double that amount by the time the final whistle came.
As it was it took until the 76th minute for the Swede to award one if those stonewallers. It wasn’t our first free kick of the game but it was the first given in an attacking area of the park, all of which were previously ignored.
In the end Celtic set out their stall to counter Qarabağ’s counter attacking style of play. Without the referee’s assistance Celtic are in the bowl for Friday’s draw.
Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel), Partizan (Serbia), Malmö FF (Sweden), Skënderbeu Korçë (Albania) or Astana (Kazakhstan) are Celtic’s potential opponents. At first glance I’d prefer the Israeli side or the Albanian’s not for location, just for our chances.
It will be another step up for Ronny Deila and his players as the expectations become more real. European football is secure until December but the Champions League is where we want to be.