For the third time in four years Celtic will be envious onlookers as Europe’s competitions reach the knock-out stages.
Wednesday night’s 2-0 defeat to Barcelona at a boisterous Celtic Park confirmed that Celtic would finish bottom of Group C, even if they were to beat Manchester City in two weeks’ time.
There are tall orders, there is extracting blood from a stone, and then there is Bruce Willis, Steve Buscemi, Ben Affleck et al trying to prevent a meteor wiping out planet Earth. With a group containing Barcelona and the riches of City, Celtic’s task of qualifying for the latter stages of the Champions League was somewhere around the latter in terms of difficulty. With one game still to be played there is no Hollywood ending in store for Brendan Rodgers’s first foray into the competition with his new club.
Yet, the club have not only come a long way since Ronny Deila’s tenure but made substantial progress from that infamous night at the Victoria Stadium in Gibraltar where the Hoops fell to an embarrassing 1-0 defeat against Lincoln Red Imps. A favourite word of Rodgers is ‘character’, and Celtic showed just that to recover the tie at Celtic Park before getting past Astana and Hapoel Beer-Sheva to reach the Champions League group stages for the first time since the 2013/2014 season.
The campaign may have got off to a disastrous start with the club’s heaviest ever European defeat, 7-0 at the Nou Camp, but they recorded more points than some may have expected, and could have had even more if Callum McGregor had finished a glorious chance in matchday four against Borussia Moenchengladbach. The luck of the draw pitted them against illustrious opponents, but for Rodgers, ebullient at the best of times, there are a number of positives to take.
He has a goalkeeper who belongs at the top level behind a defence which has a number of qualities, despite the concession of 15 goals. In attack Celtic have a striker in Moussa Dembele who has been touted for a £20million-plus move already.
Rodgers will be most concerned about the play between the boxes. While Scott Brown has been revitalised and, minus an evisceration from Lionel Messi, was excellent in front of the defence against Barcelona, the midfield has been missing a key element; someone to offer control, giving structure to Celtic’s play, setting the team’s tempo, slowing down and speeding up when necessary.
Celtic have been at their best in the Champions League when the game has been played at a frenetic pace. The opening stages of last night’s game, the enthralling 3-3 draw with Manchester City and the end-to-end nature of the second half of the draw against Moenchengladbach.
Rodgers has made tactical tweaks throughout the group, but the Northern Irishman seems to have settled on the three-man central midfield with a ‘holder’ and two ‘numbers 8s’ moving forward in Europe. Stuart Armstrong and Tom Rogic started ahead of Brown as the 8s, as they did at Borussia Park, but despite their best efforts they struggled.
Luis Enrique’s Barcelona are not the same as Pep Guardiola’s. There is not the same emphasis on possession and pressing. They don’t suffocate teams to the point of asphyxiation in terms of their high press. Opponents no longer feel like they are trapped in a washing machine, going round and round, watching Barcelona’s impish maestros ping the ball up and down, side to side. Opponents are allowed to play, every now and then.
Celtic saw the ball for decent periods of the game, especially the first half, but rarely troubled the calming presence of Gerard Pique and the imperious Javier Mascherano. The game passed Rogic by, while for Armstrong, who covered plenty of ground and got involved, he was once again wasteful with the ball. The 43-year-old’s reasoning for the inclusion of McGregor on the right was not only to offer compactness but another reliable passer to retain possession.
One of the main issues, not only in Europe, has been in the build-up from the back, especially when teams look to press Celtic high before dropping deeper. It was evident in their recent victory over Kilmarnock. The passing play in deep positions was haphazard from the likes of Dedryck Boyata with options diminished from Killie’s brave strategy.
Rodgers, taking inspiration from Barcelona and Guardiola, built his Swansea side around the controlling passing of Leon Britton and Joe Allen, the latter was signed by Rodgers for Liverpool and then linked with a switch to Celtic during the summer. Without a libero type centre-back, a player willing to take possession in deep and tight areas to break the press of the opposition, and move Celtic up the field, is clearly required and most likely earmarked.
Rodgers asked for patience earlier in the season when the crowd grew frustrated with long spells of possession with little incisiveness. A reinforcement in the mould of Allen would help with passing through the lines and offering the tempo which Rodgers demands.
With Rodgers showing little trust in Patrick Roberts, who will return to parent club Manchester City in the summer, and James Forrest displaying limitations on the bigger stages despite his progress, another option out wide would be preferable. Forrest has worked diligently on the defensive side of his game but doesn’t currently possess the end product to hurt the best teams in Europe. While his pace can send him clear of most full-backs in the Ladbrokes Premiership it is a whole different prospect trying to beat a speedster like Jordi Alba.
With the tricky Scott Sinclair offering an out-to-in option on the left it will be someone in the mould of Forrest rather than Roberts who would be of preference.
When Rodgers walked through the doors at Celtic Park in the summer a revolution was expected. It didn’t materialise. He has shown the difference a respected and personable manager can have to a floundering team. Now, for Celtic to reach the group stages of football’s premier competition, further evolution is necessary. And an easier group.