ONCE upon a time, Celtic could not travel anywhere that required a passport stamp without returning to newspaper shelves reporting on the latest continental apocalypse.
Scorer: Celtic: Balde (12)
But Celtic fans are once more looking forward to another European campaign, with a morale-boosting win in their baggage.
This time there were no co-efficient points on offer, and the “Dublin Decider” against Liverpool really decided nothing, but it bolstered confidence ahead of what supporters hope will be another Champions League campaign. A satisfied Neil Lennon admitted in the post-match press area of the Aviva Stadium that there were plenty of positives.
“It’s fantastic for the young players particularly,” he said, which begged a follow-up question about who the old players were, such was the infancy of many of the careers on show.
“They’ve probably learned a lot about themselves tonight, I couldn’t have asked a lot more. We had a really good first half, we were probably fortunate to win the game, but looking at the performance overall I think we can compete at this level. There were some great performances against an exceptional team.”
“Imagine what our first team could have done to them,” one Celtic fan crowed on the way down from the Aviva Stadium’s vertiginous stands.
It was easy to gloat, given the majority of the Celtic team on the pitch at full time were under the age of 21, while Liverpool plodded along with the likes of Steven Gerrard, who has just enjoyed a testimonial.
Jackson Irvine, Celtic’s young Australian, excelled in midfield despite the gilded opposition around him, while Adam Matthews, Tony Watt and Dylan McGeouch also impressed.
Goalscorer Amido Balde took the man of the match award, though, with his ability to hold up play.
“I thought he gave [Kolo] Toure and [Andre] Wisdom all sorts of problems,” Lennon said, while also picking out new defender Steven Mouyokolo for praise.
“He was aggressive, strong and quick and he took his goal well, he gave us a great platform to work off,” Lennon said of Balde.
He was a nuisance from the very start, ploughing a lone furrow up front, with skipper Anthony Stokes dropping into midfield, while Watt and McGeouch buzzed on the wings.
The summer signing from Portuguese side Vitória Guimarães, who has been euphemistically described as “raw”, showed up well, and Lennon admitted that Balde’s strength was something he was keen to utilise. “He’s a different type to what we’ve had. We’ve not had that presence since John Hartson or Chris Sutton,” he said. “He’s raw, he needs some work but he has something. Of course he’s in the mix for the Champions League game, he’s part of the squad. When he puts his mind to it he can be a real handful. We bought him for £1.3 million, so he’s a player we want to develop.”
Celtic started with just two of the side that began the scoreless draw in Elfsborg on Wednesday, with the trip to Kazakhstan in 12 days time for the Champions League play-off against Shakhter Karagandy a primary concern. Lennon will seek assistance from both the Football Association of Ireland, who played a World Cup qualifier in Astana Stadium last September, and League of Ireland team St Patrick’s Athletic, who beat
Karagandy in the Europa League two seasons ago.
He also reiterated his frustration with the timing of this week’s international against England, and admitted his planning for the play-off first leg is not as controlled as he would like.
“A lot of the team are on international duty this week, so that’s a concern, and then we have to go to Aberdeen on Saturday, but we won’t know who’s fit until Thursday or Friday,” Lennon said. “We will have an eye on Kazakhstan as it’s imperative to our season, and we hope to fly out there on Saturday.
“The international break is coming at an awful time for us, because the bulk of our squad are international payers, but there’s nothing we can do about it, we’ve had this problem for two to three years now. The Scottish lads want to play against England”
Liverpool: Mignolet; Johnson, Toure, Widsom, Enrique; Gerrard, Lucan, Allen (Henderson 57), Coutinho, Downing (Ibe 72), Aspas (Sturridge 45). Subs not used: Jones, Alberto, Assaidi, Coates, Borini, Sterling, Kelly, Flanagan.
Celtic: Zaluska (Forster 45); Matthews, Lustig (Fisher 45), Mouyokolo, Izaguirre (Findlay 65); Kayal (George 84), Irvine, McGeouch; Watt (Henderson 84), Stokes, Balde (Atajic 70). Sub not used: Herron.