Ange Postecoglou Celtic approach examined as Bayer Leverkusen plan suggests priorities lie elsewhere
He could never say so publicly, but there feels something free-hittish about the – frankly – catchweight bout for Ange Postecoglou’s Celtic team in going toe-to-toe with Bayer Leverkusen.
Privately, the Australian might also be willing to acknowledge that Thursday’s Europa League contest under the liights at Celtic Park isn’t even the main event for his club this week.
Maybe it is a misreading of the situation, but the surprise chat from Postecoglou about possible game time against the second-placed Bundesliga side for what-had-been-thought would be injury absentees Callum McGregor, Kyogo Furuhashi and Giorgios Giakoumakis could relate to an understanding of the greater importance to Sunday’s league trip to Aberdeen.
A loss to Leverkusen wouldn’t be grievous. At this still nascent stage of the team’s brick-by-brick rebuild imposed on Postecoglou, no-one really expected Celtic to rubble Leverkusen and Real Betis for a tilt at the last 32 of the competition. What was expected – and entitled to be so – was that even as he set to work with his daunting footballing construction project, he could cement away wins in the top flight, and claim more than half the points available across the first eight games of the title race. Yet only a victory at Pittodrie on Sunday would allow for both wholly modest objectives to be met. A reverse, to extend to four games the worst losing league run on the road by any new Celtic manager and which could enable Rangers to open up a nine-point gap on their rivals, doesn’t bear thinking about.
All of which is why it would make sense to give minutes to McGregor, Furuhashi and Giakoumakis against Leverkusen assuming they are sufficiently recovered from their various ailments of late. That way, they would not be going in cold to an encounter against Stephen Glass’ men where the heat will be furnace-like on Celtic to deliver three points.
None of this is to present the Parkhead club’s second outing in Group G as a mere starter. It could certainly be an indigestible affair, no question, but equally a feast to savour were the home team to somehow get their teeth into it. In this context, the fact Postecoglou’s approach will centre on attacking with ravenous intent need not be considered of questionable wisdom.
It may have been agonising to squander an early two-goal lead in the 4-3 defeat in the Europa League opener away to Real Betis a fortnight ago, but better that than sitting in a position without making a game of it - as they have in recent sojourns to a country they have never won in.
Indeed, the Betis experience can offer encouragement for the daunting Leverkusen assignment. An assessment with which Postecoglou unsurprisingly concurs.
"We can be positive about that game, for sure,” he said. “We went away from home to Betis and took the game to them. I thought we dominated and played really well. The result didn't go our way but we showed that night we're prepared to take the game to quality opponents away frrom home. And we'll certainly look to do that in this game. Leverkusen are a very strong team but if we play our football then we can cause them problems."
The football that will be played by the visitors will be based on a model that holds great appeal to the Celtic manager. ‘We have always had a strong connection with German football in Australia,” said the 56-year-old. “Quite a few Aussies have been through there and we have had links there. In general you understand that the strength of the Bundesliga is such that it’s always a league people follow. Certainly I have because it has always been a system-based league in terms of their best teams always incorporating fantastic individuals. Their strongest teams have always been very system based and have clear structures in their football teams. My teams are fairly similar in that way and definitely it’s a league where, if you are passionate about football and what is happening, it’s one you follow closely. A lot of things they do and the way they work incorporate things that can benefit us.
“For us when we have played our best football this year is when we have played well as a collective and been really aggressive with our defending, starting from the front. And when we’ve had the ball we have had everyone involved.”
Composure, he acknowledges, will be essential. And not just from his players. “[Staying calm] starts with me,” he said. “There’s no point me telling the players something that I’m not prepared to do myself. You have to live those behaviours and not just talk about them. For us as a group, myself, the coaching staff, the players, everyone involved, what a great opportunity to go up against a fantastic team and see what impact we can make.
“I think that sort of comes from training and making sure the players are well prepared and showing them that there are solutions out there. We realise there are going to be moments when mistakes are going to be made or the opposition, because of their quality, are going to cause you problems. I think it’s more important in terms of composure that during those times you handle it. At times in Betis we didn’t handle it well. We conceded two goals in quick succession and either side of that we were controlling the game quite well. There are going to be moments in the game when they are going to threaten us and cause us problems through their quality. Those are the times when we must stay composed and get through it and work our way back in.”
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