Celtic target group progress in Champions League

Brendan Rodgers admits he endured another night of Champions League qualification worry after Celtic progressed into the group stage despite a 4-3 defeat in Astana.

Olivier Ntcham celebrates the goal that gave Celtic breathing space in Astana. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

Their 5-0 thrashing of the Kazakhstan champions in the first leg at Celtic Park last week gave them a sizeable cushion but there were some nervy moments for the Northern Irishman in a pulsating encounter in the Astana 
Arena.

Now Rodgers has called on his squad to improve on last season’s showing by finishing in the top three in their group and securing European football beyond Christmas.

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The home side took the lead through an own goal by Kristoffer Ajer before Scott Sinclair curled in the equaliser.

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers celebrates at full-time. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

Two goals in a minute at the start of the second half by attackers Serikzhan Muzhikov and Patrick Twumasi brought the home side back to life and when the Ghanaian grabbed his second to make it 4-1 there were some anxious moments before late goals by Olivier Ntcham and Leigh Griffiths gave the visitors an 8-4 aggregate win and confirmed they would be in European football’s top club competition for the second successive season.

Rodgers recalled last season when his side survived a nervy second-leg onslaught to reach the Champions League group stage with a narrow 5-4 aggregate playoff win over Hapoel Beer Sheva.

“Welcome to the annual Beer Sheva moment,” said Rodgers after the game. “When the second goal went in, that was a good moment for us.

“We turned the momentum of the game then. The players were shocked with the goals we conceded but once we got the second goal the calmness came back into the team and that leads into the third goal and we defended much better then. But I think it is a yearly thing these moments.

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers celebrates at full-time. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

“We have gone through this qualification phase really well but we had to withstand that and we have seen it before, teams maybe crumbling away and all of a sudden you have a shock result. But in the end we had 19 attempts at goal and the domination of possession but I still want us and expect us to be better.”

Last season Celtic finished bottom of their group which included Barcelona, Borussia Monchengladbach and Manchester City, with three points and no wins.

As he looked forward to tomorrow’s draw, Rodgers targeted at least third place in the group and Europa League football this time around.

He said: “Our aim was firstly to qualify, it’s a big achievement with the route we have to take and the games we have to play. That was the first target. What we would like to do is progress this year and be in European football after 
Christmas.

“We are going to play against some fantastic players in the Champions League, the highest club level, and the players will improve and if we can be in European football after Christmas that will be another great step forward for us.

“But we look forward to the draw. It is brilliant for the club and for Glasgow, the city.

“It is not just about the football, it is about the nation and what it does economically and commercially, what Champions League football brings to Glasgow. It is absolutely 
fantastic.”