There are few obvious parallels between Celtic and the Manchester City side that Brendan Rodgers’ men have drawn in the Champions League. There might be one similarity that causes Craig Gordon great angst, though. A group of biting reality for Celtic has resulted in them being dismissed as also-rans through facing Barcelona, Borussia Moenchengladbach and City. The section might have a piquancy for the Celtic keeper when he considers the summer headlines at the Etihad.
The arrival of Pep Guardiola has caused keeper Joe Hart to lose his place in the City first team. The Spaniard has been blunt about the unsuitability of Hart to be a last line of defence who can operate as an auxiliary sweeper. Yesterday, Gordon found himself left out as Rodgers selected Dorus de Vries against Aberdeen. The attraction of the replacement for the Celtic manager was that he can be the sweeper-keeper in the team he is intent to mould.
Gordon’s placing on the bench for Aberdeen’s visit caps a troubling week that should have been one of triumph for the 33-year-old. He was implicated in the two goals scored by Hapoel Beer-Sheva that left Celtic living on their wits as they held out for a 5-4 aggregate win to return to the Champions League after a two-year absence. In reality, a series of defensive lapses contributed to a 2-0 defeat in Israel that was the subject of a, frankly, abject display.
Gordon, whose penalty save ultimately proved decisive to landing the club a place in the £30 million promised land, has had a number of uncertain moments this season. In part that might be related to the ever-changing backline in front of him, and in part it might be a psychological frailty caused by the glowing references Rodgers gave his former Swansea goalkeeper De Vries when he signed the 35-year-old last month.
“For me I need to have, and how we work, a goalkeeper that means when we have possession we have 11 players — that he can distribute the ball and pass it. Dorus is as good as I’ve seen in that in all my travels,” the Celtic manager said when he recruited the Dutchman. Now circumstances seem to have conflated in the dislodgement of Gordon. Yet the keeper having the ball knocked out of his hands and into the net through Saidy Janko crashing into him for Hapoel’s second goal in Tuesday’s play-off would not seem to have been the catalyst for De Vries’ debut.
“I felt for Craig. I haven’t seen so much, but I’m aware there has been a little bit of that [blaming him for the goals],” Rodgers said. “He’s a good guy. He’s definitely a player I want to have around here. He does his very best. He’s understood what I want from a goalkeeper because my goalkeepers need to be able to control the game from behind. If you don’t have control in your build-up, then it’s very difficult to have control anywhere else on the field and I always think that the quicker the ball goes forward, the quicker it comes back, so the control element is important and he’s tried to embrace that.
“He’s 33 years of age, he could have just stuck to his own idea of playing but he’s tried to take on board how I’ve wanted to work and he’s given everything to try and play the way I want him to play, so I’ve found him a really good guy, conscientious, he wants to work and of course if a goalkeeper does make a mistake they feel isolated a wee bit but I have nothing but admiration for him.
“A lot of British goalkeepers, and not just him, are used to getting rid of the ball, instead of passing it and there’s a huge difference, but you can still learn no matter what age you are to be better and I can see in his distribution he’s looking to find different lines of pass.”
Rodgers sought to present his demand for more from Gordon as anything but a personal witch hunt. Even if his playing philosophy seems so targeted that the Scotland international inevitably is a potential casualty.
The two-time Scottish football writers’ player of the year has craved so long to play Champions League football, and over three seasons contributed so much to attempt to bring in to Celtic Park, it would be cruel if he were deprived of it. Especially since he rebuilt a career from scratch following the knee problems which threatened to reduce it to rubble when he was in his late 20s.
“All the players [still have work to] do, we still have levels to get to, to improve on, but the beauty is they want to do it and Craig, like all the others, will improve with development,” Rodgers said.
Celtic will struggle to develop their Celtic Park giant-killing reputation in the Champions League group that has done them no favours. The club have three times reached the last 16 since the competition replaced the European Cup. Each time, they have prospered only when the second seed has been Benfica – a big club, but not from one of the big five leagues. They have rarely threatened to progress when they have been placed with two teams from the big five leagues in a Champions League section. Never before have all three of their group opponents hailed from the elite European set-ups.
“The expectancy around Celtic is huge domestically, but there’s also realism around the likes of Manchester City and Barcelona,” Rodgers said. “They’re superpowers of world football in terms of the financial clout they have to attract players. Borussia Moenchengladbach are a big club who fell away but are coming back. They’ve done very well in Germany.
“As a coach it’s brilliant because you have different challenges to navigate your way through. We’ll look to try and find a way to gain something from the games. You have to really go and enjoy them. That’s the message. There’s nothing to lose. You want to do your very best and have no fear. Take on the challenge and embrace it.”
Gordon, meanwhile, has much to lose as he faces a challenge he must embrace.