Fortune favours Brendan Rodgers’ men in Astana

Celtic's Moussa Dembele. Picture: SNS
Celtic's Moussa Dembele. Picture: SNS
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How lucky do you think you were, asked a clearly narked Kazakhstani journalist of Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers at the press conference that followed his side pilfering a 1-1 draw in the Astana Arena that makes them strong favourites to progress to the Champions League play-off stage. “Very lucky. I’m Irish,” played along Rodgers.

He could afford to see the funny side. His quip might even have been a case of only half joking because fortune certainly favoured Rodgers in the opening leg of the third-round qualifier.

There was no great departure from what Celtic have so often served up when exasperating on the road in continental competition through many years, and many management eras. A cheap, horrible goal conceded from a set-piece, a number of uncertain moments at the back that escaped deserved further punishment – Craig Gordon’s agility a factor in that – and toe-curling periods when possession was gifted away.

Against that, there were passages when Celtic controlled the ball, while Patrick Roberts provided an exhibition in wing play. However, had the Scottish champions been on the end of a 3-1 defeat, they could have had few complaints.

But there weren’t. And maybe that fact does indeed point to Rodgers carrying luck his predecessor, Ronny Deila, simply couldn’t buy in such situations. Moreover, Celtic finished strongly because their new manager, demonstrating a fearlessness rather than good fortune, dared to make changes of an attacking variety.

Initially, Rodgers reset the side by removing the ineffectual Moussa Dembele – who seemed to cramp Leigh Griffiths’ style more than double his team’s frontline options – and solidifying the midfield through introducing Nir 
Bitton.

Subsequent to that, though, he was bold enough to send on James Forrest and Tom Rogic, pictured, two players whose first thought is to drive forward, which can leave gaps – and direct Astana had already shown they were quick enough to exploit. Granted, in Forrest and Rogic replacing Stuart Armstrong and Callum McGregor, Rodgers sacrificed two players who had struggled to get a foothold in the match.

No matter, he pushed for a crucial away goal. It might not have been mere coincidence that, only 60 seconds on from Rogic’s 77th-minute arrival, a clinical strike from Griffiths – following superb forcing, jinking play from Roberts to set him up – brought instant reward. For his proactive approach, this was probably merited.

Celtic’s requirement now is to win in front of what is sure to be a pumped-up Parkhead crowd next Wednesday. It is not a simple requirement since Astana are a naturally counter-attacking team that will have seen enough vulnerabilities within Celtic’s back three – youngster Eoghan O’Connell and Efe Ambrose both veered from the decisive to the dodgy at points – that will see them approach their pressure-free evening in Glasgow imbued with hope. Celtic should be good enough to find the means to secure the victory – a 0-0 would suffice but that would seem unlikely – that would take them to within two games of a first Champions League group-stage campaign in three years. That prediction comes with a healthy warning, though.

Two summers ago was the last occasion that Celtic secured a 1-1 draw in a Champions League qualifier. There were differences between that scoreline in Maribor and the one in Astana. In that play-off, under Deila in 2014, the tied outcome was an unlucky rather than lucky outcome.

That gave rise to a belief Celtic would finish off Maribor at home. On a night where nerves afflicted crowd and team – not necessarily in that order – come the concession of the tie-settling 76th-minute goal, it felt like they were being put out of their misery. A memory that ought to ensure no such misery is visited upon Celtic next Wednesday.