Brendan’s Bhoys back in Champions League

by Paul Murphy

Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers embarked on a tough six-game journey to take the Bhoys back into the UEFA Champions League (UCL) promised land after a two-year absence.

The qualifying campaign was book-ended by two wretched performances but the Hoops made it over the line and that’s all that matters now.

After a matter of months in the job, Rodgers has managed to do what predecessor Ronny Deila failed to achieve in his two attempts.

 

Now the Hoops face familiar foes Barcelona, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and former Euro giants Borussia Monchengladbach in the group stage.

The draw couldn’t have been much harder, with the Bhoys already having had to endure six qualifying games to get back to Europe’s top table. Fans have seen the good, the bad and the ugly in that time.

When Rodgers’ first competitive match ended in arguably Celtic’s most embarrassing defeat of all time – a 1-0 defeat at Gibraltar’s Lincoln Red Imps – prospects looked bleak for the Scottish champions.

As expected, the Celts turned the tie around with a 3-0 win in Glasgow but the draw for the second qualifying round was unkind, as the Bhoys were handed a trip to Kazakhstan to face FC Astana.

Astana had featured in last season’s UCL and gave a decent account of themselves, losing just twice – away to Benfica and Atletico Madrid.

It was doubtful that Rodgers new side were ready for such a step-up in quality, especially given that the squad was essentially the same as the previous year.

Worst fears looked like being realised as Celtic endured a torrid first half in the first leg in Kazakhstan. They went a goal down but it could have been more as the makeshift defence was repeatedly exposed.

But the first signs of Rodgers’ ability to make a positive impact came in the second half as the Bhoys regained their composure and grabbed a foothold in the game.

They eventually got their reward when Patrick Roberts capped an excellent individual performance with an assist for Leigh Griffiths’ leveller.

Things were nicely set up for the second leg at a rocking Celtic Park. It was an edgy game and the hosts suffered a huge blow just after the hour mark when Roberts limped off.

But Griffiths’ penalty on the stroke of half-time gave the Hoops the lead before Agim Ibraimi levelled for the visitors just after the hour.

 

Rodgers brought on new striker Moussa Dembele for James Forrest with 15 minutes remaining.

The change paid huge dividends as the substitute won and then converted a last-minute penalty to send the Celts into the play-off round.

It was an important result psychologically for Celtic as they recovered from the equaliser and held their nerve at the key moment.

Of the possible opponents in the play-off, Hapoel Be’er Sheva would certainly have been near the top of most supporters’ lists as other more dangerous looking teams like Dinamo Zagreb and FC Ludogrets were avoided.

Rodgers’ men duly destroyed Hapoel in the first half of the first leg at Celtic Park. An early goal from Tom Rogic and two wonderful strikes from Griffiths put the Parkhead side in complete control and well on course for a return to the UCL.

But the Bhoys had thrown away good positions in the past two years so fans would take nothing for granted.

In 2014, an impressive 1-1 draw in Maribor was squandered when the Slovenians won 1-0 at Parkhead.

In 2015, Celtic turned an early 2-0 lead into a 3-2 win over Malmo and the Swedes finished the tie with a 2-0 victory in Scandinavia.

History looked like repeating itself when Hapoel struck twice in three second-half minutes to put the tie back in the balance.

Again, though, Rodgers made an intervention that made a difference. He introduced striker Dembele for midfielder Rogic in an attempt to add to the lead rather than settle for a precarious 3-2 victory.

The change paid off almost immediately when goals from Dembele and skipper Scott Brown’s secured a 5-2 win.

The two away goals were a slight cause for concern but most supporters would surely have settled for a three-goal lead.

It was a strong indication that Rodgers’ side still have a long way to go when they took stage fright in Israel. On what the Celtic boss later described as ‘probably the longest night of my career’, the Bhoys simply never got started.

On what was to become a truly nightmarish performance on a personal level, former Manchester United full-back Saidy Janko conceded an early penalty but was bailed out as Craig Gordon saved from Maharan Radi.

Relief was short-lived as Ben Sahar opened the scoring on 21 minutes and the rest of the first half saw the Hoops under pressure and struggle to make any clearcut chances.

 

There was a catastrophic start to the second half when Gordon came out to make a straightforward catch from a cross.

The keeper collided with Janko, the ball fell loose and Ovidiu Hoban tapped home.

An excruciating end to the game followed but the Hoops held on for a 5-4 aggregate win.

Huge sighs of relief came from Celtic fans across the globe, giving way to celebration at the recognition of Rodgers’ achievement in taking the club back into the UCL.

Celebration will soon give way to recognition that the current squad has weaknesses that will be ruthlessly exposed by Barca et al.

The Hoops faithful will be hoping that a few signings will be made between now and the end of the month to ensure that their team gives a better account of themselves than in 2013/14 when their record was one win and five losses in a group that contained Barcelona (again), AC Milan and Ajax.

It must be assumed that most fans would realistically settle for third place and a berth in the Europa League after Christmas.

There are still several puzzles to solve with the current players. Gordon has looked increasingly shaky in goal, finding the best back four remains a mystery and Rodgers must looked for ways to get the best out of the midfield talents of Rogic and Nir Bitton.

For now, though, Rodgers can congratulate himself on a job well done and steel himself for bigger challenges to come.

Author Info

Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy is an independent football writer based in Bangkok. He was formerly a freelance sports sub-editor with UK newspapers, including the Sunday Express and Metro. He now writes regularly for ESPN's South East Asia blog about Thai football and writes a monthly column for Hat-Trick magazine in Thailand.

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