CELTIC supporters don’t tend to think much of Efe Ambrose’s judgment. Yet his lofty predictions over the potential of Nir Bitton no longer deserve to be dismissed as another of his woolly headed moments. When the club recruited his former FC Ashod team-mate 18 months ago, Ambrose asserted that the young Israeli midfielder could be Celtic’s Sergio Busquets eventually. As Bitton struggled to settle for the best part of a season, the comment seemed cringeworthy. That perception has altered.
Bitton may not now, or ever, be at the level of the Barcelona lynchpin. On Thursday night, however, he was more than the equal of any defensive midfielder in the ranks of such a storied side as Internazionale. To offer some context to the 23-year-old’s contribution in the 3-3 draw that ensued from the first leg of the Europa League last-32 encounter, eight of the Milan club’s on-target efforts came from shots outside the box. The visitors didn’t carve Celtic open to score; they capitalised on calamitous errors. Bitton, then, was a big player for his team well beyond the fact he stands 6ft 5in in his stocking soles, a burgeoning stature recognised in the grand compliment paid him by his manager, Ronny Deila, as he “delighted” in “the way he as developed”.
“He was a giant against Inter,” the Norwegian said. “He won balls all over the pitch, didn’t give the ball away many times. We have only seen the beginning of him and he can only get better. That makes me happy.”
Yet Bitton’s contentment – “I am enjoying being part of this family; this club” – stems from the rare ability shown again by the Celtic support this week to have their players walking tall, with hope in their hearts you might say, even after finding themselves in the most invidious of predicaments.
“All the compliments must go to the fans,” said Bitton. “After the second Inter goal went in, it was a nightmare for us…to concede two goals in 15 minutes. But the fans kept pushing us. After our second goal, I couldn’t hear anything at all. It was the best feeling in the world. When you play at Celtic Park in front of 60,000 fans who push you, you always believe in yourself. I am just so happy we came back [at the end]. There is much difference between 3-3 and 3-2. If we lost 3-2, we would have to win the second leg by two goals. Now we are just looking for a win in the next game. The first leg was special, though, that is for sure.”
In reality, Celtic being spared defeat courtesy of John Guidetti’s 93rd-minute strike isn’t likely to make much difference to the tie. Bitton believes preventing Inter from scoring in the San Siro in Thursday’s second leg will be imperative to Celtic pulling off a monumental salvage job. Celtic have kept clean sheets in European away ties that weren’t qualifiers a grand total of twice in the past 11 years.
“They scored three away goals, so they are the favourites, but we just need to play our game and stay focused. In football, everything is possible in 90 minutes. It is early to say. But when you play against a big team like Inter away, of course, you will not come and open the game, try to score two or three goals. We will try to play our game, defend well and keep a clean sheet. Keeping a clean sheet is the main thing for us. If you keep the clean sheet, then everything will be fine.”
Rest ahead of next week is also key, but Celtic will have little of that owing to their hosting of Hamilton Accies this afternoon. The Israeli international, while respectful of the fixture, was honest enough to admit that this unadorned league encounter would be “difficult” in coming only days before his team will perform in one of the fabled European football amphitheatres.
Bitton’s relish over the second leg, though, has more to do with on-pitch challenges than any sightseeing. “Inter have some very good players, you can see that [Xherdan] Shaqiri is top class. To play against guys like that, it just makes you a better player. When you see guys like [Fredy] Guarin and Shaqiri in front of you, you just want to be better than them. That is what we will do in Milan.”
Bitton has no doubt Celtic have acquired two attackers of their own that have made them better. The performances of Stuart Armstrong, who accounted for Celtic’s initial comeback double – even if one of these was credited as an own goal – and Gary Mackay-Steven made for home and European debuts that will long be remembered.
“These two players are amazing,” Bitton said of last month’s transfer-window captures from Dundee United. “They showed these kind of things already in the first game against Partick Thistle and we see it every day on the training ground. They are very good players and I am happy for them that they showed everybody their playing level.
“Sometimes it can be difficult to come in during the middle of a season when the team is already running. Sometimes it can be difficult to come to the tempo of the team. But we are a team. We play for them and they play for us. We try to put them inside the team. I am happy for Stuart to score two goals. He brought us into the game and Gary was amazing. We win as a team and we lose as a team.”
And when it comes to the likes of Bitton, Armstrong and Mackay-Steven, they already seem to be growing as a team.
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