…and you come back top of the league with a game at hand. Let’s deal with a more exciting storyline though shall we?
Celtic have made the Champions League group stage for the first time in three seasons. Brendan Rodgers has achieved in his first attempt, what Ronny Deila failed to do in his two seasons in charge.
When I last wrote on here, Celtic had just beaten St Johnstone and were off to Israel for the second leg playoff match against Hapoel Be’er Sheva. Despite having a three goal cushion, Celtic had two away goals against them to be concerned about.
The first half of that match was all about the home side. In fact so was the second.
With nothing to lose, Hapoel went all out for the three goals they needed.They missed a penalty, but they would eventualy score the opening goal of the game.
The penalty wasn’t one in my opinion, nor was it a yellow card for Saidy Janko. The save by Craig Gordon was justice for the referees poor decision.
Ben Sahar, a substitute for the concussed Lúcio Maranhão, made an immediate impact with his first touch. He got away from his marker, Scott Brown, to head home from a corner.
With Kieran Tierney, who had bandoned his near post position and Craig Gordon scrambling around they both failed to prevent it from going in. It was a decent goal by the Hapoel substitute and probably deserved for his team’s efforts.
The manner in which Celtic lost it though left me questioning our marking system once again. The way Brendan Rodgers had setup Celtic for this match it appeared to allow him to alter the team shape if needed.
It has to be said, there was very little evidence of alteration until very late on. More on that later.
The formation would remain as it was for most of the match. Not great for the nerves it must be said.
Hapoel had their tails up and the freedom of the park. You could argue that this was to be expected given the deficit they had to overturn and the fact the Israeli champions had home advantage.
The space they had to express themselves, caused by the gaps left by Celtic was risky. In managerial terms this might be described as ‘containing the opposition’ but this isn’t something we’ve seen Celtic do too often or effectively.
The second half saw one single change. Tom Rogic replaced James Forrest, with the aim of getting higher up the middle of the park as our wide players were making little headway.
It didn’t take long for that change to be shattered as Celtic became involved in an unmistakable calamity. Janko, not having his best of games it must be said, ploughed straight into his keeper who had just collected a crossball.
The momentum of Janko, who was keeping up with his opponent, Ovidiu Hoban, carried him straight into Gordon, knocking the ball out of his hands. The ball dropped kindly to Hoban who probably won’t score an easier goal in Europe.
If they weren’t doing so already, Hapoel were beginning to believe. Their dream was turning toward reality whilst Celtic’s was turning into a very familiar game of European self inflicted damage.
The Israeli champions began creating more and more chances. The Scottish champions weren’t creating, just defending.
Moussa Dembele replaced Leigh Griffiths hoping to spark a revival. He came close on 60 minutes when he curled a fine effort past the Hapoel goal.
Then another chance, this time by Scott Sinclair. His shot was parried and Dembele’s follow up blocked by the Hapoel defence.
On came Erik Sviatchneko for Callum McGregor. He came on with orders as well, which he duly passed in note form to captain Scott Brown – defend even more – it transpired.
With Hapoel still on the offensive, that third goal was looking closer and closer. Celtic were clinging onto the match by the skin of their teeth.
Every time a ball was loose it seemed to fall to Hapoel, but fatigue was begnning to set in. Celtic were digging deeper and deeper.
As the clock ticked down both sets of players were displaying multiple signs of pain and weariness. For the first time in the game I sensed that Hapoel might have run out of gas.
The 90 minutes were done and 4 were added on. With 3 minutes left, Hapoel got a freekick which they put high and wide.
Gordon was booked for time wasting. All the players were dead on their feet.
The seconds burned away slowly. Then came the final whistle!
For over ninety minutes, Celtic lived dangerously. The tactic deployed to contain isn’t something I’d like to see again, not for a whole match anyway.
Hapoel Be’er Sheva weren’t a bad side, but Celtic showed them too much respect. I’d like to have seen a few spells where Celtic put Hapoel under pressure but they didn’t.
Instead we let them play the entire match breaking only when the ball allowed us to. That didn’t really work for Celtic other than the fact the avoided a narrow aggregate defeat.
I didn’t enjoy a single minute of the match. Just in case you hadn’t picked that up previously.
Now though, we’re back where we want to be in the Group Stage of the Champions League. And with that, a very familiar opponent.
Much to my displeasure, Barcelona head up Group C. It would have been nice to play a team that we haven’t been drawn against so many times.
On the other hand, facing Manchester City will be refreshingly new. They may have finished 4th in the English Premier League but they have Pep Guardiola at the helm and a formidably financed team.
The final piece of the puzzle was Borussia Monchengladbach who like City, also finished 4th in their league. So there are only two current national champions in Group C.
The favourites will be Barcelona whilst Manchester City will be second favourites. Borussia Monchengladbach will be aiming for 3rd place but as we’ve seen in previous Champions League campaigns, strange things can happen for Celtic.
I know very little about the German side other than that last season they were grouped with Juventus, Manchester City and Sevilla in the Champions League. They finished bottom whilst City topped that group and even made it to the semi-finals losing out at the hands of eventual winners, Real Madrid.
So with Guardiola’s City battling it out with his old club Barcelona, Celtic have to focus on pipping the German side. At this stage, 3rd place would be fantastic.
The variables in the group phase are plentiful so it isn’t impossible. And let’s face it, nobody likes coming to Celtic Park except to witness one of the best atmospheres in world football.