Celts bow out of Europe with brave display
Celtic and Man City shared the spoils on match day 6 of the Champions League, after Patrick Robert's early opener was quickly cancelled out by City's Kelechi Iheanacho's equaliser
UEFA Champions League
Etihad Stadium, Manchester
Tuesday 6th December
Manchester City - 1 (Iheanacho, 8)
Celtic - 1 (Roberts, 4)
Celtic bowed out of Europe on Tuesday night with an impressive display at the Etihad, which earned them a 1-1 draw with English Premier League title chasers Manchester City in the final game of Group C in the Champions League. Celtic performed with style and purpose throughout the game, and at times caused serious issues for the Manchester City back four. The game signalled the end of Celtic’s first European campaign under Brendan Rodgers, but also a bright future under the Irishman. There have been plenty of positives to be taken from Celtic’s European campaign, which began way back on the 12th July in Gibraltar where Celtic suffered an embarrassing 1-0 defeat to minnows Lincoln Red Imps. Since then, the level of progression which has taken place at Celtic has been clear for all to see and this was evident in the following two qualifiers where Celtic were able to see off stiff opposition in Astana and Israeli side Hapoel Be’er Sheva, aided by an exhilarating 5-2 victory at Celtic park, the first real sign that Brendan Rodgers was beginning to forge a team capable of playing aggressive, attacking and most importantly effective football on the European stage.
When Celtic suffered a 7-0 defeat in the opening game of their first Champions League Group Stage campaign in three years, it became evident that the Scottish champions would need to learn some harsh lessons, and time wasn’t exactly on the side of Brendan Rodgers’ men with their next European task coming two weeks later against City, who were flying in the Premier League at the time of the meeting with six straight wins behind them. In spite of this, Celtic put Manchester City to the sword in a six goal thriller in which Celtic took the lead three times. Celtic deservedly earned plaudits from pundits and fans alike, and perhaps with a little bit more experience and nous at Champions League level would have been able to take all three points. Following the Battle of Britain, Celtic faced a double-header against German side Borussia Mönchengladbach. After suffering a disappointing 0-2 defeat at home to the German outfit, Celtic managed to restore hope of European football after Christmas with a courageous performance in Germany which earned them a 1-1 draw thanks to a late Moussa Dembélé equaliser from the spot. Again, the signs of progression were evident and despite Celtic’s difficult position in the group, there was plenty of reason for optimism among Celtic fans. A fortnight ago, Celtic fell to a 0-2 home defeat to Catalonian giants Barcelona which meant that following Gladbach’s draw with Manchester City, Celtic wouldn’t be competing in European football after Christmas. The level of display against Barcelona was once again encouraging, Celtic earning 41% possession and creating a host of chances against a side that has been renowned for dominating possession of the football in recent years. The signs were certainly beginning to show that Brendan Rodgers was building a team capable of putting it up to some of the best sides in European football.
Both Celtic and City had little to play for in terms of the competition on Tuesday night, with City’s destiny as 2nd best placed team in the group sealed, and Celtic unable to leap-frog Borussia Mönchengladbach due to their inferior head to head record. However this didn’t take away from the intensity that is so typically associated with a ‘Battle of Britain’ in Europe. Celtic started extremely brightly, and were rewarded after four minutes when Mikael Lustig was able to win possession after some careless play by the City defence. The Swedish fullback found Patrick Roberts, who was hugging the touchline. The Englishman, who was facing his parent club, drifted past Gael Clichy with ease before gliding into the box and unleashing a ferocious effort into the bottom left hand corner of the net, despite Willy Caballero’s best efforts in the Manchester City goal. Celtic’s lead was short-lived thanks to a well taken goal by Iheanacho four minutes later. The Nigerian forward made an intelligent diagonal run and was spotted by Nolito, which caught the centre of Celtic’s defence unaware, before rifling the ball into the roof of the net with his left foot. Iheanacho came close to doubling City’s lead only a few moments later, after Pablo Zabaleta broke free down Celtic’s left hand side. The Argentine full back found the striker with a perfectly weighted pass, however the young striker steered the chance wide from about eighteen yards out.
On 17 minutes, it looked as though Celtic were going to restore their lead. James Forrest received the ball on the left hand side of the pitch, and despite being surrounded by three light blue shirts, he was able to weave his way out of trouble before playing a clever pass to Dembélé who only needed to beat Caballero. The Frenchman’s attempted chip was blocked by the Argentine goalkeeper, and the striker was unable to keep his composure and steer the ball into the empty net with his weaker left foot, albeit from a tight angle. Celtic certainly had the better chances of the first half, City’s best chance coming from a clever piece of improvisation from Iheanacho after Sane had done well to find him in the box, however Craig Gordon was alert to the chance and Celtic were eventually able to clear their lines. It was the side from Glasgow who should have had a blatant penalty just before half time. Patrick Roberts received the ball in a similar position to where he caused the damage that led to the first goal, and it was the City full back Clichy who he committed once again. Clichy wasn’t going to allow the Englishman to dance past him for a second time, and consequently grabbed a hold of Roberts’ jersey before pulling him back and allowing himself to intervene and clear his lines. City found themselves fortunate to be going in level at half-time.
Celtic pressed on in search of a winner in the second half, edging the possession stats and creating a couple of half chances. City countered with pace and purpose throughout, and did pose a massive threat. Pep Guardiola thought his side had taken the lead when Nolito had the ball in the net after a Celtic corner led to a devastating counter attack by City. The Spaniard had originally found fellow countryman Jesus Navas with a beautifully weighted cross field ball, when the right winger returned the favour with a well driven low cross towards the back post. Nolito was able to adjust his footing and coolly divert the ball into the back of the net. The former Celta Vigo man had strayed marginally offside however, and the Celtic back four breathed a sigh of relief.
Celtic’s best chance of the half fell to Leigh Griffiths on 77 minutes. Australian midfielder Tom Rogic, who was once again integral in everything Celtic did in an attacking sense, pounced on some hesitant play by Fernando on the edge of his own penalty area. The ball fell to Gary Mackay-Steven, who was making his first appearance of the season for the hoops after injury. The winger fed the ball to fellow second half substitute Leigh Griffiths who dragged his effort agonisingly side of the right-hand post. Last season’s SPFL player of the season has struggled to find a consistent place in the team of late due to a combination of illness and the deadly form of Moussa Dembélé, and his effort was symbolic of his rustiness. Celtic had another great chance a few minutes later and once again Gary Mackay-Steven and Leigh Griffiths were involved. Some clever interplay in the middle of the park by Celtic allowed Griffiths to find Mackay-Steven who was racing in on goal. The winger perhaps took a second too long to make his mind up, and Caballero did well to make himself big and block the eventual effort by the winger.
It was a performance that eloquently defined Celtic’s Champions League campaign this season. Harsh lessons, followed by clear signs of progression with exciting, inventive and attacking football against some of the best sides that are currently involved in European football, means that Celtic fans have a lot to be optimistic about in terms of European football and direction the club is going under Brendan Rodgers. While the results weren’t quite there, Celtic can take solace in the fact that they gave a very credible account of themselves in the ‘Group of Death’ in this season Champions League, in what was the clubs first participation in three years. With some quality additions to the squad in the following two transfer windows, Celtic fans can be optimistic about their European chances next season when they will go through the rollercoaster of the qualifiers once again. The Scottish champions have already added the League Cup to the trophy cabinet this season, and with a comfortable lead in the Scottish Premier League and the Scottish Cup still to play for, the club and the fans in particular will be hungry for that much-sought after domestic treble that hasn’t been achieved since Martin O’Neill’s side won all three competitions in 2000-01.