The Rodgers Revolution: Celtic's season so far - Part one
Celtic headed off to the Middle East last week as part of a mid-season training camp for the Scottish domestic winter break; for some well needed recovery after what has been a gruelling season so far. Before the new year showdown with Rangers, the bhoys had played a staggering thirty five competitive games, juggling between the Scottish Premiership, the League Cup and the UEFA Champions League in what has been an exciting season so far for Hoops fan all over, with some silverware already added to an already illustrious trophy cabinet as reward for the teams early season efforts. Domestic duties will resume on the 22nd of this month with a Scottish Cup tie away to League One side Albion Rovers, and Brendan Rodgers will be looking to make it one step closer to that coveted domestic treble. Thus far, Celtic are unbeaten domestically having romped to League cup victory – without conceding a single goal, and having only dropped points once in a total of twenty Premiership games after conceding a very late equaliser away to Inverness Caledonian Thistle. The signs of progression have been there for all to see. The side now looks a different animal to the one which fell to a humiliating 0-1 loss in Gibraltar at the hands of Lincoln Red Imps back in July when Rodgers was in the dugout for the first time in a competitive game. Indeed, that game is now a distant memory in the minds of Celtic fans, who have enjoyed the clubs best ever start to a domestic season, on top of some fairly impressive showings in Europe’s elite club competition – the UEFA Champions League.
Celts in Dubai: Brendan Rodgers chats with Moussa Dembélé and new signing Kouassi Eboue during a training session in Dubai
Celtic began their quest for Champions League group stage football way back on the 12th of July with what seemed a relatively straightforward tie against Gibraltan minnows Lincoln Red Imps, who had disposed of Estonian outfit FC Flora Tallinn in the first round of qualifying. What followed was an embarrassing 1-0 defeat, and while the conditions were far from ideal, Brendan Rodgers was faced with an early warning of the pressures which lay ahead. The Irishman had previously managed another colossal club in Liverpool down in England, where there is a similar level of expectation, but as he has alluded to himself, the situation whereby a club is faced with such important fixtures as early as July and August is a unique one.
It would be fair to say that his predecessor Ronny Deila learned this the hard way, losing crucial Champions League play-offs in August two seasons in a row, and facing the criticism and pressure that came with them – from media and fans alike. Despite the embarrassing defeat to the Gibraltan side, the tie was not over and the Hoops responded well to spare the blushes a week later. Goals from Mikael Lustig, Patrick Roberts and Leigh Griffiths secured progression to the third round of qualifying.
Next up in Champions League qualifying was a tricky encounter with Kazakh side FC Astana, a team who had proved stiff competition for last seasons finalists Atletico Madrid in the Group Stages the previous year. The first leg was played on 27th July, and Celtic put in a very polished away performance in another uncomfortable setting. Leigh Griffiths scored the crucial away goal and earned Celtic a 1-1 draw, a positive result heading into the return leg at Parkhead a week later. Paradise was a near sell-out for the return, and the Bhoys delivered on the park with a crucial 2-1 victory. A Griffiths penalty just before the break ensured they went ahead, but a well taken Ibraimi goal for the Kazakhs resulted in a nervy last half hour for Hoops fans. It was Dembélé who stepped up to the mark, coming on as a second half substitute and scoring a 90th minute penalty to send Celtic into the play-off round, for the third year in a row. It was the first of the Frenchman’s career in Glasgow, and hopefully there will be a lot more to come.
The domestic season began with a relatively tough game at Tynecastle only a few days after the qualifier with Astana. Despite this, Celtic put in another accomplished performance, taking the lead in the first half through James Forrest. Hearts did equalise, and it took a late goal from debutant Scott Sinclair to secure the three points for the Hoops – a dream start for the Englishman and a dream start for Brendan Rodgers in the Scottish Premiership. The squad recently faced an intense schedule of games for the month of December, with nine games being played in total; but August was something of an early warm-up for such schedules, with seven competitive games on the Celtic calendar, along with a friendly against Italian giants Internazionale in Limerick. Three days after opening their league account against Hearts, attention was turned to League Cup duty for the first time with a home tie against Motherwell. The home side put in a blistering performance, winning the game 5-0 courtesy of Sinclair, and doubles from Dembélé and Rogic. The football on show on the night was superb to watch, and was a sign of things to come.
Scott Sinclair celebrates scoring the winner on his debut
Next up was the all important Champions League play off – a game that could make or break the clubs season. From a financial point of view, a win was crucial, but aside from that, Champions League participation was important for the progression and development of the current squad – evident in the fact that performances had stagnated over the previous two seasons – a direct consequence of failing to qualify for the competition. Hapoel Be’er Sheva from Israel stood between Celtic and Champions League participation. Be’er Sheva had taken care of Olympiakos in the third round of qualifying, so it was evident this would be far from easy. Hope among the Celtic faithful soon turned into joy, when they roared into a convincing 3-0 lead in the first half of the first leg at Celtic Park. A Rogic opener was followed up with a classy Griffiths double, and at the interval it seemed as though Celtic had one foot in the Champions League. For whatever reason, the bhoys returned from the interval in an apprehensive manner, and the lead was quickly cut from three to one, due to two soft goals for Be’er Sheva. The nature in which Celtic surrendered the lead sparked flashbacks among the stands of Malmo a year previous. There was a difference this time though and it was evident in the way that Brendan Rodgers side bounced back from the set-back. Dembélé was introduced and had a huge impact on the game – scoring a header from a Leigh Griffiths corner kick to make it 4-2, and provide a little bit of breathing space among the support. A late volley from captain Scott Brown restored the three goal lead, and despite the fact that the Isreali side now had two away goals - the consensus was that the three goal cushion should be enough to see Celtic over the line.
Before the return leg in Israel, Celtic oversaw St.Johnstone with a 4-2 victory at McDiarmid park, thanks to goals from Sinclair, Forrest, Griffiths and Christie. The performance in Israel was a nervy one, and the concession of two first half goals made for uncomfortable second half viewing. Despite this, the bhoys hung on and kept the deficit at two, and ensured Champions League participation for the first time in three years. It was the first major objective of the season to be complete for Brendan Rodgers, and there were signs of good times ahead at Paradise. An eventful month was rounded off with another energetic home display, fending off Aberdeen with a 4-1 victory, with goals again from Forrest, Rogic, Sinclair and Griffiths. It was another sign of progression from the side under Rodgers, as Aberdeen had proved to be tricky opponents in the last couple of seasons.
Captain Scott Brown celebrates qualifying for the Champions League in Israel
The draw for the Champions League groups stages took place on 25th August, and Celtic were dealt a group of death – they were drawn against Barcelona, Manchester City and Borussia Mönchengladbach. A trip to the Nou Camp lay ahead on match day 1, and an encounter with Barcelona’s deadly forward line. Before the tie with Barcelona, there was the small matter of a Glasgow derby to be taken care of. On 13th September Brendan Rodgers' side provided Rangers with a cruel reminder as to the size of the gap between the two sides. Celtic ran riot on the day, Dembélé scoring a clinical hat-trick, with goals also coming from Scott Sinclair and Stuart Armstrong.
Dembele seals his hattrick in the derby
The joys of the derby demolition were short-lived, as the squad were forced to quickly turn their attention to preparation for the Nou Camp, only a few days later. Barcelona performed with style and ruthlessness on the night and taught Celtic some harsh lessons in a 7-0 thrashing and it highlighted the progression that still needed to be made under Brendan Rodgers, in order to be competitive at that level. It was only Pep Guardiola’s high flying Manchester City up next in two weeks time, after all. Before Rodgers could even begin to think about Guardiola’s side at Celtic Park, the hoops faced three domestic ties.
First up was Caley Thistle, and points were dropped for the first and only time of the seasons thus far, thanks to a late equaliser from Fisher, after Rogic and Sinclair had twice given Celtic the lead. The players weren’t afforded the time to dwell or sulk on the result, as the quarter final of the League Cup beckoned only a few days later. Celtic overcame a stubborn Alloa Athletic with a 2-0 victory, thanks to goals from Forrest and Dembélé, cementing what had been a solid start to the season for the pair. Kilmarnock were up next and it proved to be the perfect warm up for the City game. The performance on the day was excellent, and despite a first half wonder goal from Killie’s Coulibaly which gave them the lead, Celtic bounced back to win emphatically. A Dembélé double was followed by goals from Forrest, Sinclair, Griffiths and Rogic. The deadly forward line of Dembélé and co were becoming something of a nuisance for defences in Scotland, and teams were really beginning to fear coming to Parkhead once again.
Not only were Celtic becoming a nuisance for defences in Scotland, but they ended the month of September with a performance illustrating that they could also mix it with the big boys in European competition. Guardiola’s City were on a 10 game winning streak before they arrived in Glasgow, and were one of the form sides in Europe at the time. Two goals from Dembélé and a goal from full back Kieran Tierney resulted in an uncomfortable night for the English side, who left Parkhead lucky to be on the receiving end of a point. Celtic showed aggression and quality at a level that had been missing for a couple of seasons on the European stage– and the level of progression made by Rodgers was now not only evident to Hoop fans; football fans all over were beginning to take notice.
Tierney tussles with Raheem Sterling of Manchester City
The hoops showed no signs of a European hangover when they travelled to Dundee the following Saturday – and began the month of October with a well earned 1-0 victory thanks to a left-footed finish by captain Scott Brown. Following the International break, a league tie against Motherwell lay ahead, Mark McGhee’s men eager to make amends for the 5-0 loss they suffered in August. It was certainly a more compact, and overall improved performance form the Steelmen, but once again Celtic showed their quality and ruthlessness on the domestic front, and once again Scott Sinclair and Moussa Dembélé proved to be the match winners – something which was starting to become a regularity.
Four days later, it was a crunch European game against German side Borussia Mönchengladbach that beckoned for Celtic. Celtic suffered a 2-0 defeat to the Germans, who were largely inspired by their midfielder Lars Stindl on the night. The former German u21 International put in a fine performance on the night with a goal and an assist, and it now looked like there was a mountain to climb in terms of European progression. Again, there was no time to dwell on the result as the big games were coming thick and fast, next up being a League Cup semi against Rangers at Hampden. While there was a contrast between the scoreline of this game and the first derby of the season – the difference in quality between the sides was much the same and Dembélé’s late winner was no more than Celtic deserved. Brendan Rodgers had a League Cup final to look forward to in November, only a few months into the first season of his Celtic tenure.
The month of October was rounded off with two away victories – the first a 4-0 thrashing of Ross County with goals from Patrick Roberts, Stuart Armstrong and, once again, the deadly duo of Scott Sinclair and Moussa Dembélé. This was followed up by a hard earned three points at Pittodrie – thanks to a world class volley from Aussie Tom Rogic, who was beginning to really hit top form for Brendan Rodgers' side.