- AFTER so much talk beforehand regarding their poor performances of late and the prowess of their Russian opponents, Brendan Rodgers and his Celtic players can walk away from Paradise this evening beaming with delight at both the result and attitude they showed against European mainstays Zenit St Petersburg. A superb Callum McGregor finish on 78 minutes was enough to down Roberto Mancini's side, and was the very least that the Hoops deserved on a night where they hustled and harried the Italian's outfit from beginning to end. The lead may be a slender one, but with a clean sheet to go with it and with Zenit also still seemingly finding their form again after a 2 month winter break, Celtic can go into next week's 2nd leg with every hope of progressing to the Last 16.
Europa League Round of 32, 1st leg
Thursday 15th February, 2018
It is fair to say that the Hoops have looked out of sorts for much of this season. The likelihood of us repeating the extraordinary exploits of last season domestically was never really likely, and it appears that many of the players have suffered from a 'hangover' of sorts throughout this season's games. European performances in particular have not offered much hope and this combined with our recent level of performance to create a real 'doom and gloom' feeling approaching tonight's 1st leg. Zenit were talked up continually even by our own press - as per usual - and put upon an almost godly pedestal at times. If you'd have bought into the hype prior, then you would have been forgiven for believing that another 5-0 home trouncing was on the cards.
Despite being a good side - and also despite this tie not being anywhere near over - Zenit are no PSG and luckily, Rodgers and the players realised this and took the game to their counterparts from the very first kick of a ball. Celtic's performance this evening was phenomenal and the atmosphere harked back to Celtic Park nights of old, as the rain and wind fused with the voices of the sell out crowd to put the 'fear' into the Russian visitors from the outset. It most certainly had the desired effect.
It was clear from watching the team tonight that Rodgers had demanded a change in attitude and most importantly, a switch in tempo. It was fast, aggressive and relentless, with it being clear throughout that Celtic were determined to quash any hope of a simple stroll in the park for a Zenit side still feeling their way back into competitive football. The Hoops put in arguably their most complete performance of the entire season so far, with every single player sticking to his task. The defence, which has been so often maligned, was calm, composed and solid. The midfield trio of Brown, Kouassi and Ntcham once again showed that they are perhaps the most suitable option for Rodgers on nights like these, where a more pragmatic and 'in your face' approach is needed. Then of course there is the front 3 of McGregor, Dembele and Forrest - the latter playing almost like a wing back at times- who gave the Zenit backline a torrent of abuse throughout. Then, there was Charly Musonda. On European nights like this one, the match can so often be decided by a moment of assured brilliance, and that was provided on this occasion by the young Belgian who firmly announced his arrival as a Celtic player with a sublime assist for the goal after coming on as a 72nd minute substitute.
Ready for Battle: The Celtic starting XI prior to the game
As already alluded to, the goal 12 minutes from time was the very least Celtic deserved. In the 1st half there were numerous opportunities for the home side to take the lead, with Tierney so often finding space down the left hand side of the park to fire in cross after cross, and the red hot James Forrest on the opposite flank ensuring that Zenit captain and experienced Italian campaigner Domenico Criscito would be having nightmare flashbacks on the flight home. The illusive McGregor had perhaps the best opportunity of all, as the Celts high press caught the opposition defence slacking, with Eboue Kouassi nicking the ball inside to the number 42, who shaped the angle but could only fire a weak shot into the arms of the goalie from just outside the box. Indeed, it was the kind of 1st half that manager's of the team in the ascendancy do not want to end, as the longer it went on the more increasingly likely it seemed that the Russian defence would falter. However, the Celts would have to wait for that crucial goal which has set the tie up so intriguingly.
The 2nd half did continue in much the same vein, though. The tactics employed by Brendan Rodgers on the night appeared to have Mancini slightly perplexed. His flexibility in terms of set up has of course been displayed on many an occasion as Celtic gaffer so far, but tonight was an absolute masterclass. Eboue Kouassi and Ntcham for instance, who, by trade, are centre midfielders, were deployed in roles similar to that of a wide-attacking midfielder, with Eboue in particular often finding himself far up the top end of the pitch, an area of the park he is certainly not used to. However, it worked. The energy and tenacity provided by the likes of him and Ntcham gave Zenit's main men - such as Leandro Paredes - very little time on the ball to dictate play. In attack, the formation resembled a 3-6-1, before slipping back seamlessly into a 5-4-1 when on the back foot and looking to defend, which, at least this time, was very rarely. Despite the obvious benefits the formation change was bringing, as the game wore on it was becoming more and more likely that it was going to take a piece of magic to break down a stubborn Zenit rearguard, and, that is precisely what happened.
Celtic had played well, but with the likes of Roberts, Rogic, Griffiths and Sinclair absent from the starting XI, that extra bit of spark was perhaps missing at times to really take advantage of all their possession and dominance. On 72 minutes Rodgers finally sought to change that, and removed the outstanding Eboue Kouassi from play and replaced him with the more attack minded and tricky Charly Musonda. The Belgian has had a slow start to life in Glasgow's East End so far, finding himself put into a side that has been playing below par. With various creative players already missing, it could be argued that extra pressure has been thrust upon him from the outset, with fans looking to him to provide that spark we have so often lacked this campaign. In his first few games he has showed flashes of what he will offer, but tonight he managed to provide us with his first meaningful contribution in a green and white shirt, and what a time to do so.
Flexible: Rodgers' tactics and substitutions on the night were spot on
Picking the ball up just before the half way line, he held onto it well, shrugging off the attentions of Mattias Kranevitter, Zenit's pitbull like defensive midfielder, before slipping the ball inside to Olivier Ntcham. As soon as he had done so, he set off up the park, and in one fluid motion found himself presented with the ball on the edge of the Zenit box courtesy of Moussa Dembele, who had done well to beat 2 Russian defenders down the left wing up until this point. Now, what he produced next was something only very talented and gifted players can do. With 3 or 4 defenders around him, he had the ability to control the ball, before picking his head up to nonchalantly loft the ball to the back post to find the unmarked Callum McGregor. His part in the goal was just as impressive, as he chested the ball down with confidence, before finishing the ball in emphatic fashion into the top right hand corner of the goal. At this point Celtic Park did what only it can do best. Erupted. Rodgers set off flying down the touchline and the players all congregated to congratulate the excellent McGregor on his goal (not before Musonda had managed his own celebration, that is).
Deserved: McGregor wheels off after putting Celtic ahead
I hate to repeat myself once again, but, it really was the very minimum that Celtic deserved on the evening. Ok, Zenit weren't looking too sharp at all, but I feel a lot of that was down to the performance of their opponents on the night. Make no mistake, this did not happen purely because the Russians were 'not at the races'. As already mentioned within this report, many of the Hoops players who played tonight have not been on form themselves for much of this season. A prime example being Moussa Dembele, who has struggled severely with injuries and form. Tonight however he gave a performance reminiscent of last season against Man City, all that was missing was a goal or two. Even McGregor, despite having a better season than most, hadn't scored prior to tonight since October against Bayern Munich. Tonight provided the exuberating lift that this squad has been needing for months now.
Despite all the positives, it would of course be extremely naive to assume that we are now into the Last 16. Zenit are still a good side. It's still only 1 goal. I would also be very surprised if they were as laid back and passive in a week's time on their own patch. However, Rodgers is of course well aware of these facts himself and will be under no illusions of the task facing his men in Russia next Thursday. On the evidence of tonight though the players can take great confidence heading into that second 90 minutes. Approaching this evening if you were to have asked any Celtic fan if they would take a 1 goal lead and a clean sheet after play had ended, I'm sure they would have given you a resounding yes. I know I would have.
After being in the midst of the first real 'gloomy' stage under Rodgers in recent weeks, this result and performance has once again reminded us just why he is here, and, why we as fans are so lucky to have him as manager of the club. We may not be able to consistently hold our own against the likes of PSG and Barcelona, but against sides of Zenit's standard - who are still an established European force - if we turn up and play the football we all know we can, then there is no reason why we cannot compete regularly, year in year out. This is perhaps one of the most endearing factors of the Europa League to us as a club nowadays. It provides a platform for us to develop and realistically compete with many of the clubs present in the competition. Here's hoping this performance can be built upon next week in St Petersburg, we certainly have every chance after tonight.