So Celtic made it into the second qualifying round with relative ease last night. It was not without incident though.
Moussa Dembele scored a hard worked effort in the seventh minute to get things under way. Four minutes later, Jozo Simunovic saw red for a high boot – I’ll come back to that later.
There’s no doubt this had an impact for the remaining seventy-nine-plus minutes of the match. Celtic remained composed though and continued to play their game and with some verve too.
From the first minute it was clear how sharp we looked. What was even more impressive was how we managed to maintain that for the remainder of the match with a one man disadvantage.
On nineteen minutes Dembele converted a penalty to make it 2-0. Then on thirty-five minutes, following a brilliant breaking move, James Forrest latched onto a great pass to make it 3-0.
By this point Celtic were still dominating play. Alashkert were hardly a threat.
The second half saw more of the same from Celtic. Good moves, dominating possession and still with a one man disadvantage.
Brendan made some changes bringing on Scott Sinclair for Odsonne Edouard, Ryan Christie for Moussa Dembele and Mikey Johnston for Forrest in the second half. There will be concern about Dembele’s hamstring with so many important games coming up, but the manager said it may not even be an injury and just some tightness.
What will be on his mind are his defensive options for next week. With Simunovic banned for the first leg, Marvin Compper injured again, Cristian Gamboa, Mikael Lustig and Dedryck Boyata still to return from their World Cup rest periods all our hopes lay with youth.
Last night Jack Hendry, Kristoffer Ajer and Kieran Tierney held the back line for most of the match with Forrest filling in at right back. Next week we could potentially be looking at Anthony Ralston coming in at right back, Tierney in his usual role with Hendry and Ajer as the central pairing.
Hendry has not convinced some folk, but it’s worth remembering he’s also been played out of position since his arrival central defence is his preferred role. The options and experience may not be what the fans wished for, but it is what we have at this stage.
The option to recall any of our World Cup players to help out may be an option as pointed out by Brendan. It could also present a risk though if they haven’t had a sufficient rest period
As I said in my last blog though, Boyata and Gamboa haven’t played since the group phase and Lustig since the last sixteen. So anyone of them could be called upon if required.
On the plus side, the first leg of the second round is at Celtic Park next week. With home advantage the risk of playing an inexperienced back line would be somewhat lower and this might be the opportunity to field a future back-four.
Tierney has almost thirty European games to his name and is way ahead of Ajer who is now approaching double figures. It is Hendry and Ralston who have to catch up with only two games each in their locker.
Is this a back line you’d be happy with though? I’d be happy to blood them now, but in the later stages you need more experience and we will.
Rosenborg will provide a threat having won in injury time last night in their tie against Valur. Celtic faced the Norwegian champions in last season’s third round of the competition so they know each other well enough.
On that occasion Celtic won the round 1-0 on aggregate thanks to a James Forrest winner in the second leg over in Norway. However, it’s worth noting that Celtic played without a proper striker in both of those games last year.
Whilst Leigh Griffiths is injured and Dembele needs to be assessed, we still have Edouard ready to roll. And with the entire team looking sharp I am not too concerned about which players we utilise for this one as long as it is our strongest available one.
Before I finish up, I wanted to mention last nights performance. Celtic were scintillating.
I know Alashkert are relative minnows in European football, but even with ten men Celtic were fantastic. Which brings me on to the red card incident.
Simunovic, by the laws of the game endangered another player with a high boot. It was not intentional or malicious and you could see that due to the quick exchange of headers he had his eye on the ball all the way but it was a foul.
Could the ref have shown yellow? Yes, I think he probably could have, but as Brendan said, in European football you will get punished for that.
Sometimes you throw a high boot and can get away with it because it isn’t endangering someone else. In this case it was in a dangerous direction and that was why he was sent off.
There’s no use complaining about it. What I would say is that the referee did not show the same discipline to some of the challenges being dished out by Alashkert players who were clearly frustrated, particularly in the second half.
It was a true testament to Celtic’s pre-season fitness that they played they way they did last night. We will only get stronger as the summer months roll by.