The Rodgers Revolution: Celtic's season so far - Part two
The month of November began with yet another huge game for a team that was now becoming accustomed to playing in, well, huge games. Celtic went to Mönchengladbach knowing that they would need to reverse the result at Parkhead between the two sides in order to have a realistic chance of achieving European football after Christmas for the first time in two seasons. It seemed as though the bhoys had a mountain to climb when Lars Stindl gave the Bundesliga outfit the lead on 32 minutes. Celtic, however, showed the type of spirit that has historically been associated with Celtic teams. We pushed and pushed for an equaliser on the night and were rewarded when Dembélé was deemed to have been fouled in the penalty area with about quarter of an hour to go. The in-form Frenchman coolly slotted away the penalty and handed his side a life line. What followed was a green and white onslaught of the German goal. It looked like all three points were in the bag when with about six minutes left, Patrick Roberts gifted Callum McGregor with a glorious opportunity, but the midfielder skewed his opportunity wide. It ended 1-1 and Celtic’s European hopes were left hanging by a thread, but despite this the reaction to the performance was positive – there had been clear signs of improvement from the team on the European stage.
Dembélé celebrates scoring the equaliser in Germany
Following an encouraging display in Germany, the hoops had loose ends to tie with Caley Thistle, who at this point remained the only team to take points from the Scottish champions. Revenge came in a 3-0 victory thanks to some familiar names in Sinclair, Griffiths and Rogic. One of the notable highlights of this season has been the improvement in the performances of Scottish midfielder Stuart Armstrong – and it was his fine finish which gave Celtic all three points at Rugby park the following Friday night. By now, it was beginning to become difficult to see where a domestic loss was going to come from. There was still two games to be played in the Champions League, with Barcelona at Parkhead up next. Despite falling to a 2-0 victory and being eliminated from Europe on the night, Celtic once again showed that there has been significant improvement made since the appointment of Brendan Rodgers. Considering the level of opposition, notably Barcelona’s forward line of Neymar, Suarez and the man who got a double on the night – Lionel Messi, Celtic had every reason to be optimistic after a fine display of both aggressive and forward-thinking football. Barcelona were made to work for their three points and it’s not often that that is said about a side that many consider one of the best in the history of the game.
From one colossal game to another; by this stage Brendan Rodgers was most definitely learning what being the manager of Celtic Football Club was all about. Following the midweek glamour of a Champions League night at Parkhead against Barcelona came the glory of a cup final at Hampden, this time Aberdeen being the team standing between Celtic and the league cup trophy. The hoops were outstanding on the day and cruised to a 3-0 victory thanks to two wonderful finishes from James Forrest and Tom Rogic, and a well taken penalty by Dembélé. Remarkably, the trophy was won without conceding a goal, and will hopefully be the first of three domestic successes this season.
Goalscorers Dembélé, Rogic and Forrest celebrate League Cup success at hampden.
It was back to league business six days later at Fir Park, and it looked as though League Cup victory celebrations were perhaps taking a toll on the bhoys, as they fell to a 2-0 half time deficit. Celtic’s unbeaten domestic record looked to be certainly under great threat. What came in the second half from the bhoys was a performance of tremendous spirit and character – and one which highlighted the mentality which has been instilled in this squad since the appointment of Brendan Rodgers. The introduction of Callum McGregor at the interval seemed to spark the team into life, and his goal on 48 minutes provided hope. The hoops plugged away in search of the equaliser, desperate to hang on to their winning run in the Scottish Premiership. They were rewarded on 70 minutes when Armstrong crossed to find Patrick Roberts, who headed in from only five yards out.
At this point, you would have been forgiven to think Celtic were the only team who could go on and win it, but such was the nature of this particular game that there was to be another twist in the tale. Motherwell, who had spent most of the previous twenty five minutes of the half camped inside their own box, went right up the other end of the park and restored their lead through Lionel Ainsworth. In a bizarre turn of events, more or less straight from kick off – Celtic went up the other end and found an equaliser! Armstrong and Roberts were both involved once more, but this time it was Roberts turn provider. Armstrong made a darting run behind the Motherwell defence, the Englishman found him with a telling ball, and Amstrong made no mistake with his finish. 3-3 and at this point it was hard to envisage any more drama. Such is the mentality of Celtic this season though that they never settled with the draw, and were rewarded eventually in the last minute with a glorious right footed strike – from that man again, Tom Rogic. It was the first time in months that Celtic’s resolve and character had been truly tested in a domestic game – and to a man the bhoys stepped up to the plate with an exhilarating second half performance. It was the mark of a team who refuse to accept defeat, which is a credit to the management team.
Armstrong celebrates scoring Celtic's third only moments after Motherwell had retaken the lead
The drama at Fir Park was the first of nine games for the month of December, a demanding schedule of games even for a squad of professional athletes. The second of these nine games was a European away trip to Manchester City – a game which had no significance in terms of group standings or qualification – but had plenty of significance in terms of pride, both sides eager for victory in the ‘Battle of Britain’ omn Europeans elite stage. Much like at Celtic Park, the hoops got off to a great start when Patrick Roberts found the net against his parent club on four minutes. Despite the great start, the English side were back on level terms only four minutes later through a well-executed Iheanacho goal. It finished 1-1 on the night, and Celtic finished their first European campaign under Brendan Rodgers with their heads held high.
This was followed with another fine away performance, this time at Partick Thistle. Armstrong continued his fine season with a double, and Griffiths and McGregor rubbed salt in the wounds to make it 1-4. Due to the nature of the fixture schedule for December, Rodgers opted to rotate his squad and consequently an element of cohesion and fluidity was lost in the games that followed. Even despite this, the strength and depth of the squad was shown with three home victories – 1-0 over Hamilton Accies and Partick Thistle, and a 2-1 win against Dundee. Remarkably, there was talk of a ‘slump’ taking place at Celtic Park – despite the fact that the champions had extended their winning run to 15 in domestic games. This talk of a slump was made to look even more ridiculous on Christmas Eve when goals from Griffiths, Dembélé and a stunning strike from Stuart Armstrong provided Hoops fans with the perfect early Christmas present. There were no signs of festive over-indulgence among the Celtic squad four days later when they warmed up for the Hogmanay showdown with Rangers with a comfortable 2-0 victory over Ross County. Erik Sviatchenko opened the scoring with a sublime long range effort, and Stuart Armstrong made knots of the County defence before rifling into the bottom right hand corner of the net with his left foot.
Rangers v Celtic – 31/12/16
Celtic rounded off a fine first half of the season and a positive 2016 with a comfortable 1-2 victory at Ibrox on New Years Eve. The victory ensured that Brendan Rodgers’ men went nineteen points clear of their Glasgow rivals, with a game less played, highlighting the gap in quality between Celtic and their nearest rivals, and indeed the rest of Scottish football at this moment in time. Rangers did begin the game in a positive fashion, making it difficult for Celtic to settle into the game and find their usual rhythm. Celtic were punished for their indifferent start after twelve mates when some sloppy play by Celtic’s Erik Sviatchenko gifted Rangers possession just outside the Celtic penalty area. The Celtic defence was unable to readjust, and James Tavernier’s run was well spotted by Windass, allowing the full back to reverse the ball across the Celtic six yard box and into the path of old foe Kenny Miller, who couldn’t miss from only a few yards out.
It took another ten minutes or so until Celtic began to get a foothold on the game. An aggressive Scott Brown tackle on full back James Tavernier was rewarded with a yellow card – but seemed to spark an aggression into his team mates’ game that had been previously lacking. Frenchman Moussa Dembélé has been integral in anything the Hoops have done this season against Rangers, with four goals against them prior this game, and it must have felt like Déjà vu for Mark Warburton’s side because on thirty four minutes it was the Frenchman who did the damage once more. Celtic were rewarded a corner after Scott Sinclair had an effort hit off the post, only to be cleared out of danger by centre half Clint Hill. It was the English winger who turned provider, floating an inviting ball to the back post. Dembélé had lost his man and peeled away to the back post, allowing him the time and space to take a neat touch and set himself, before rifling the ball into the roof of the net with his left boot. Celtic were level and deservedly so.
Celtic’s superiority on and off the park became even more evident in the second half – with an improved performance on the park spurred on by a buoyant support. Sinclair was a constant thorn in the side of Rangers’ defence on the day and it was his goal on 69 minutes that proved to be the difference between one point and three. Stuart Armstrong started the move from deep, finding substitute Patrick Roberts who was characteristically hugging the touchline. Armstrong continued his run into the box and was found by a well-weighted reverse ball from the Englishman, allowing the Scotsman to get his head up, before finding Sinclair at the back post who could make no mistake. It wasn’t Celtic’s sexiest performance of the season but one which once again highlighted the quality of the team, in that even when not at their sparkling best, there exists an ability to find moments of magic or guile and essentially win matches, on top of an ever-growing winning mentality, evident in the fact that barring that one game against Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Celtic have been able to comfortably see out even their more tightly contested domestic games this season.
Dembélé celebrates scoring the equaliser at Ibrox with team-mates Erik Sviatchenko and Mikael Lustig
Looking ahead - life under Rodgers
Life has been pretty damn good for Celtic fans under Brendan Rodgers this season – not only has the clubs stature as the dominant force of Scottish football been continued, it has been cemented. Progress has been made on the European front, and the recent addition of exciting young prospect Kouassi Eboue will hopefully add to the list of success stories that Rodgers has already brought to the club. Kolo Toure proved to be a shrewd signing in the summer, and his experience was integral in seeing Celtic over the finishing line in the Champions League qualifying, evident in the fact the Ivorian has been recently offered a player/coach role at the club for the future. Scott Sinclair has proved to be a revelation, adding a whole new dimension to the team going forward. The fact that there are reports of teams in England sniffing around Dembélé, with reports of figures of 20 million pounds and more, sums up the impact the Frenchman has had at the club thus far, and hopefully there is a lot more to come. Brendan Rodgers will be hoping his side can begin the second half of the season in a similar fashion to how they ended the first – with victory over Albion Rovers in the last 32 of the Scottish cup this Sunday.