THE alien environment that Celtic were supposed to be pitched into last night had an air of familiarity about it for the armchair viewer. A desperate playing surface, a desperate referee oblivious to agricultural challenges and a desperation to much of the play from both sides. Heck, it could have been a Scottish Premiership encounter.
And BT Sport, and their new European football channel, did their bit to make us feel that the third round Champions League qualifier in Baku recalled certain old times. To be precise, Celtic’s assignments in foreign lands past as the club enjoyed a renaissance in the continental arena in this new millennium.
He (Van Dijk) reads the game well, is a good passer and he’s got sizeChris Sutton
With their analyst team of summariser Chris Sutton, and in-studio guests of Neil Lennon and John Hartson, they deployed three titans of this era. Former Celtic manager Lennon did not disappoint with a turn that also recalled so many of his games in charge. “The referee is shocking; he’s giving nothing to Celtic,” the Irishman spat at half-time of Swedish official Martin Strömbergsson. It was like Lennon had never been away.
Sutton, during a stuffy, nip-and-tuck encounter, was good value and certainly enhanced the entertainment with his quiet, assassin-style delivery. “What do you have to do to get a foul with this referee?” he lamented. Strömbergsson’s approach would not have appeared out of place in WWE. “Celtic haven’t had a thing from this referee tonight,” the Englishman despaired later on.
The former striker provided pointers and opinions that were a cut above the truisms that so often pass for punditry. As Celtic defended stoutly in seeking to contain a Qarabag side that they comprehensively snuffed out during their 1-0 win in Glasgow, Virgil van Dijk produced a number of commanding interventions. Sutton couldn’t resist a refreshing spot of editorialising.
He informed viewers that there had been reports of a £7 million bid from Southampton for the Dutchman. “Celtic should look for a lot more than that,” he said, making the comparison with the £20m to £25m fee Chelsea are expected to pay in order to land John Stones from Everton. “He [van Dijk] is as good as John Stones,” Sutton maintained, saying he would “acclimatise” to the greater demands of the English top flight. “He’s got everything,” he went on, warming to his theme, “he reads the game well, is a good passer and he’s got size.” We waited for him saying “he’s got legs”… and then a blast of ZZ Top drowning out the estimable commentator Derek Rae.
With no television yet on the market that replicates – in your own living room – the atmospheric conditions of the sporting occasion being screened, it could not be assessed just how much the 30C heat was affecting the tie.
An encounter that Rae stated, with a smart line he had probably been rehearsing the previous evening no doubt, hadn’t “been pretty, but gritty”.
What the pictures showed, though, was the sandpit nature of a parched surface. Billows of dust were regularly sent swirling into the air as the ball was kicked along the less-than-grassy field. Lennon, as was his wont, in 13 years as a major figure in Scotland, astutely pointed out that the profound difficulties with the pitch were more a problem for the Azerbaijani hosts who sought to pass Celtic into submission without actually producing the probing that was necessitated. “I’ve never seen that,” he said of a home team facing conditions to their detriment.
Qarabag’s limitations as they struggled to make any heading against Ronny Deila’s side in a second period that the Scottish champions saw out comfortably. Yet, that should not take away from the smart, professional performance that Deila drew from his players.
Sutton admitted that as Celtic shipped in goals in Europe last season, he questioned whether Deila could set up his team to defend. He now acknowledges that the Norwegian has the guile to instruct his team into the requirements of the occasion. A first away clean sheet in Europe for eight games was well deserved and an indication that Deila is developing his team for continental competition in an encouraging fashion.
There was huge pressure on the manager and his squad in Baku and they undoubtedly delivered. Only once was Craig Gordon called upon, a brilliant first-half stop, the only time there seemed a real threat to Celtic being able to seal their place in the Champions League play-offs inside 90 minutes.
Last night’s progress ensures that whatever happens in that tie in a fortnight, Celtic will be playing European football until Christmas. Yet, with their seeded status in these play-offs, there is every reason to suspect that they will not need the consolation prize of a place in the Europa League group stages. Sutton’s dulcet tones are likely to be heard on telly above the hum in some intimidating footballing citadels across the later months of 2015. BT Sport should be as happy about that as the Celtic armchair fans.