Andrew Smith: Astana striking headache to aid Celtic goal

Celtic will be looking to earn a clean sheet in Kazakhstan. Picture: John Devlin
Celtic will be looking to earn a clean sheet in Kazakhstan. Picture: John Devlin
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It is natural to be pre-occupied by Celtic’s defensive concerns ahead of today’s Champions League qualifier. There are so many of them it would be remiss not to be. Chances are that the backline Brendan Rodgers is forced to send out against FC Astana in their Kazakstan home arena is likely to be more patchwork than Dolly Parton’s childhood tunic.

Yet, for all that, what happens at the other end of the park in the opening round of the third qualifying round is just as likely to determine if the Scottish champions can progress come next Wednesday’s Celtic Park return.

The dangers posed by FC Astana have been laid out consistently this past week. They are unbeaten in their past seven Champions League outings. They have achieved this sequence because they secured impressive group- stage draws in their own backyard against luminaries Atletico Madrid, Benfica and Galatasaray last season. And, as a pointer to current form, they are romping their domestic title and currently hold a 10-point advantage in it after 21 games.

What might also be said about FC Astana that would not cause knees to knock with quite as much a clatter as the aforementioned is that they do not score that many goals.

In the 41 games they have played in the past 10 months, they have netted more than two goals on only five occasions. A modest return when considering their domestic supremacy.

Moreover, the man who nets more of their goals than any other, captain Tenant Nazarbayev, is out of today’s game through injury.

In addition, having lost some key members of the team that acquitted themselves admirably as Kazakhstan’s first-ever Champions League group- stage representatives, they were fortunate not to exit from the qualifiers last week. But for a 93rd-minute goal at home to unremarkable Lithuanian opposition FK Zalgiris that is the fate that would have befallen them. A 2-1 victory spared them that ignominy and brought up the goals total that they seem to have a penchant for netting in games.

It might be dangerous to suggest as much, but two goals is FC Astana’s typical haul, and an away goal for Celtic could tip the balance in their favour come the conclusion of the first leg. It will be intriguing to witness how much emphasis that Rodgers places on securing a score.

There has been some talk of a return to a variation of the 4-5-1 that was the orthodoxy of his predecessor, Ronny Deila, 
for the Kazakhstan assignment.

Yet, in recent outings – the home leg of the last qualifier, against Lincoln Red Imps, and Saturday’s Leicester City friendly – there have been glimpses that an understanding is beginning to develop between Moussa Dembele and Leigh Griffiths.

The Frenchman has yet to net for his new club while Griffiths has been equally wasteful with chances.

However, the need for a goal today ought to persuade Rodgers to trust his instincts that this combination can, and must, come good when required.

There are times when shaping a team to cover up for a deficiency can have the detrimental effect of shifting the focus on that very area of weakness.

It may seem bold to seek to somehow combine two strikers in a central partnership but to take the other route and sit in with more defensive-minded players could simply be asking for trouble.

By the sounds of Rodgers yesterday, he isn’t going to invite that by fielding Efe Ambrose.

The Nigerian’s crimes in a Celtic shirt are hugely over-stated, but he has defaulted at crucial moments and that has cost him the trust of his team-mates, the public and probably the coaching staff.

That is a burden too heavy to carry. He may have no European experience but Eoghan O’Connell – the other centre-back option for Rodgers with injuries depriving him of Erik Sviatchenko, Jozo Simunovic, and Kristoffer Ajer– has no psychological scarring from past letdowns.

It is much the same with Saidy Janko, who could be pressed into service at right-back to allow Mikael Lustig 
to cover in the centre of defence.

Considering that Kieran Tierney is a 19-year-old in only his second season on the left side of defence, the make-do-and-mend nature of the Celtic defence can fill no one with any confidence that a despairing Champions League qualifying defeat of the sort to have blotted recent summers can be avoided.

Yet it surely falls on Celtic’s strikers as much as their defenders to stitch together a more worthy continental 
collage.