- VSYesterday evening, Brendan Rodgers' Celtic returned to competitive action for the 2018/19 campaign against Armenian champions Alashkert FC, in the first round of qualifying for the Champions League Group Stages. With every season that passes, it seems as though the summer football break is getting shorter and shorter for the Celtic players. This is of course great for us fans, but surely places extra pressure upon the players to keep themselves fit throughout this long and challenging season that lays ahead.
Tuesday 10th July 2018
Republican Stadium, Yerevan, Armenia
UEFA Champions League 1st Round Qualifier
Edouard (45'+1), Forrest (81'), McGregor (90')
In the blistering heat of Yerevan however, the Celtic players proved that they are once again raring to go, with a comfortable - in the end - 3-0 win over their opponents. Goals from Odsonne Edouard, James Forrest and a late 'cherry on the icing' from the ever reliable Callum McGregor, gave the Hoops a commanding lead to take back on their luxury jet to Glasgow ahead of the 2nd leg next Wednesday night.
To many, particularly those old school supporters amongst you, it seems ridiculous that a club the size of Celtic are being asked to begin their European journey at such an early stage. Admittedly, it comes with its difficulties and yes, does seem unfair, however in the same instance, it gives Brendan Rodgers and his staff an early chance to see how the players can fair under pressure in a game which, despite the low level of opponent, is massive in the context of our season. The past 2 seasons under the Northern Irishman's stewardship have brought unparallelled success domestically while also giving supporter's the chance to enjoy 12 Champions League glamour ties and Rodgers will be hoping that the difficult qualifying path can be negotiated once again this year.
Luckily, despite the long journey and humid conditions, there were to be no early slip ups yesterday evening. Celtic ran out comfortable winners against what is a willing but clearly limited Alashkert side. The manager fielded a strong XI, near enough full strength as things currently stand, with the formation and personnel staying much the same from the 7-0 trouncing of Shamrock Rovers. Perhaps the most intriguing tactical decision was the decision to go with 2 strikers up top, with both Edouard and Moussa Dembele getting the chance to once again gel their flourishing partnership. The 2 Frenchmen did not dissapoint, with Edouard - now of course the club's record signing at £9m - and his countryman Moussa bouncing off each other well, even if the latter did not manage to find the net himself. It will be interesting to see the two develop over the course of this season, with every Celtic fan I'm sure hoping that Dembele sticks around long enough for that to happen. With Leigh Griffiths still to return to the squad as well, the options up top at the moment are frighteningly good. Elsewhere on the park it was more of the same from the usual suspects, with McGregor, Brown, Ajer and of course Kieran Tierney all churning out solid performances. With much speculation surrounding the latter's future in recent times, he looked completely unfazed on the park and was at his driving and passionate best, bombing up and down the left hand side of the pitch.
Chris Davies, Brendan and John Kennedy assess their surroundings prior to kick off last night
Despite the comfortable end result, Celtic did have a few moments of concern - particularly in the 1st half - all of which stemmed from our own sloppiness in defence. Serbian Uros Nenadovic was gifted a couple of opportunities by the Celtic backline, one of which was saved well at his front post by Craig Gordon, while early in the 2nd half Jack Hendry gave Jefferson a clear cut opportunity to equalise, which the Brazilian could not take. As such, if one important thing can be learned from yesterday's 90 minutes, it is that Celtic's defence is still the * in the armour. Without doubt. Had it been against better, more clinical opposition, a clean sheet would not be in the Scottish Champions' back pocket heading into the return leg at Celtic Park. I'm sure every Celtic fan will be hoping that Rodgers is well aware of this, particularly as it has been defensive mistakes which have so often proven to be the downfall in past European journeys. Luckily however, the Armenians could not capitalise and the attacking prowess of the Hoops proved to be the glaring difference.
The first goal came on the stroke of half time, just as it seemed both sides would be heading into the break on even terms. The Hoops had endured a decent first half, with a good chance falling to McGregor and Dembele almost managing to capitalise on a couple of defensive lapses by Alashkert. With 1 minute of injury time having been played, Celtic piled men forward, with even Jozo Simunovic finding himself in the Alashkert penalty area, the big Bosnian swiping at the ball, before it bobbled to the right hand side of the box to the feet of James Forrest. The diminutive winger completely misshit his shot, but will be claiming an assist as it ever so fortunately found its way to Edouard at the back post, who fired home past the Armenian keeper to make it 1-0. As ever, it was the perfect time to score and even at that early stage, created a huge problem for the home side. If they were to have any chance of progressing, they simply had to keep Celtic from scoring before next week's 2nd leg.
Edouard opens the scoring and nabs his 1st competetive goal as a permanent Celtic player
The goal which made it 2-0 would take a little longer to come. Following the break, Celtic assumed complete control once again (barring that aforementioned Hendry mistake and a couple of comfortable Gordon saves). Understandbly in such swealtering conditions, the players were not overly exerting themselves and were even given routine water breaks at various times in the match, in order to prevent any health issues. The conditions definitely had an affect on Rodgers' approach to the 2nd half, with his men seeming content to probe and retain possession, safe in the knowledge that they had grabbed a crucial away goal. This is of course not something we as fans always wish to see, but at this very early stage of the season and in such testing conditions, it was extremely wise. There will be more swashbuckling performances to come, of that I am sure.
Luckily for the fans though - more so the hardy band who had made the journey over to Yerevan - two more goals would come in the final 10 minutes to surely all but put the tie to bed. The first was a good finish from James Forrest following a corner, taken by new arrival Lewis Morgan, who had earlier came onto the park alongside Eboue Kouassi and Scott Sinclair, replacing Edouard, Ntcham and Dembele respectively. The Scotland U-21 international put in another impressive cameo, with his direct and pacey play style exactly what so many Celtic fans want to see from their heroes. As mentioned, following his cross in, Jack Hendry knocked down to Sinclair, who then put the ball into the path of Ajer in the middle of the penalty box, before it bobbled back to Celtic's number 49, to tuck away expertly. It was an excellent start to the season for Forrest, who will be looking to build on what was undoubtedly his finest season in a Hooped jersey last campaign.
2-0 would of course have been an excellent scoreline to return home with. Callum McGregor however, disagreed. Over the years throughout his time as a first team regular, the Academy success story has proved to be the man for the big occasion, nabbing numerous important goals, particularly in European qualifiers. This was another to add to the list, and was an excellent finish back across the keeper and into the bottom corner, reminiscent of one he grabbed against our old friends from across the city in a 5-1 trouncing.
The players take a much needed water break in the 2nd half
It was the perfect ending to a night on which Celtic were cool, calm and collected in conditions which were the polar opposite. Despite being a limited side, Alashkert were one of the best we could have faced at this early stage, so to go away from home and win so convincingly and in such a professional manner, will surely please Rodgers as we seek to build fitness and momentum heading into the much tougher tasks to come. All that remains next week is to finish the tie in front of the home faithful. One would expect that is a formality.
How did they line up:
4. Hendry --- 35. Ajer --- 5. Simunovic
8. Brown --- 21. Ntcham
49. Forrest ----- 42. McGregor ----- 63. Tierney
88. Eboue Kouassi (sub on 68')
16. Morgan (Sub on 77')
11. Sinclair (Sub on 68')