A sizable section of the Celtic faithful have declared the Australian’s side to be superior even to Brendan Rodgers’ invincible treble winners. A trophy-munching machine that in short order became the country’s first ever double treble winners. Meanwhile, all within the fanbase offer up hosannas over their masterful manager’s ability to regenerate a club that had been drained of life in the closing months of permanent predecessor Neil Lennon’s tenure, even as he guided Celtic to a quadruple treble. These grand pronouncements make sense in a domestic context, where the level of competition is, let’s be brutal, decidedly rum. That said, Celtic’s current 38-game unbeaten run in the cinch Premiership has been accomplished with, what has appeared to be, a more adventurous brand of football than Rodgers’ team produced consistently across their 69-match sequence without a league defeat.
Celtic certainly deserved the plaudits they received for really taking it to Real Madrid in a first, and ultimate, Champions League test for Postecoglou last week. A few breaks and they would have been a couple of goals up before eventually losing out 3-0 at home to no less than the holders. Yet, it tended to be overlooked that we had witnessed such brio for Celtic on such an evening not so very long ago. Rodgers wasn’t even four months in post - in contrast to the 14 months for Postecoglou now - when his team put the frighteners on a Manchester City then sweeping all before them in the Irishman’s first Champions League examination. A September 2016 occasion in Glasgow’s east end wherein Celtic did establish a two-goal lead before being forced to hit back to secure a 3-3.
Postecoglou’s newly-recast Celtic certainly performed creditably in last year’s Europa League campaign, securing three wins in a daunting group that comprised Bayer Leverkusen, Real Betis and Ferencvaros. Certainly their attacking verve banished memories of Celtic’s miserable showings at the same level under Lennon in the previous, pandemic season, pasting dished out to them home and away by Sparta Prague. However, that followed on from Lennon becoming the first Celtic manager to top a European group, achieving this with a game to spare in a difficult section that pitted them against Lazio, Rennes and Cluj.
Madrid were a free pass for Postecoglou and his Celtic players. Not so Shakhtar. Even if they have much more about them than some have strangely suggested because Russia’s invasion of their country unquestionably has denuded them of major players and major resources. The threat they still possess was demonstrated, with knobs on, by their 4-1 filleting of RB Leipzig in Germany last Tuesday. It is a result that has implications for their hosting of Celtic in Warsaw. Postecolgou’s men must avoid defeat in order not to leave their hopes of qualification from Group F hanging by a thread only two games in. Six points would represent a huge deficit to make up on the Ukrainians and, it can be presumed, Real. Carlo Ancelotti’s men surely will not slip up in entertaining Leipzig.
Celtic must avoid that scenario and demonstrate they are genuinely a team on the way up. That has certainly appeared the case on the evidence of the poundings this season meted out to Scottish opponents. All aspects of their play have seemed slicker and sharper than in Postecoglou’s first season. If the evidence hasn’t been skewed by the relative weakness of those they have faced in domestic competition, they should be able to stand up to the challenge posed by Shakhtar. In order for that to be the case, though, there does have to be a step change from how European encounters away from home have unfolded for Celtic under Postecoglou until now.
The 57-year-old may not place much store in the value of clean sheets. Just as well since his team have proved alarmingly porous outside of their own environs in continental competition (and not much better on that measure at Celtic Park, when it comes to it). Celtic have played seven European away games in the past season-and-a-bit. Not once in those, have they avoided coughing up at least two goals. Twice - against Jablonec and Ferencvaros, clubs not on the level of their Donetsk opposition - this has proved no impediment to registering away successes. However, on five occasions such defensive vulnerability has undercut their final third potency. Never more obviously than with the 4-3 loss away to Real Betis and the 3-2 reverse in Leverkusen.
As a backline unit, Celtic now appear far more assured than they were in those encounters last autumn. Indeed, even though Madrid opened them up three times to extend the club’s miserable Champions League record to two wins in 19 outings, they did so courtesy of alacrity and adriotness as opposed to being able to simply capitalise on glaring errors. That fact engenders optimism over Celtic’s ability to combat Shakhtar in the Polish capital. And even if last week’s slaying by the Spanish conquistadors turned out to be the seventh of the club’s past 10 home games in the blue riband competition not to yield them a goal, the prowess Celtic can call on in Kyogo Furuhashi, Jota, Liel Abada and Giorgos Giakoumakis should ensure their sequence of scoring in every European away game under Postecoglou does not come to a halt. However, if such hopeful portents do happen to prove misplaced, then they will leave themselves open to the charge that they are merely flat track bullies. It cannot be overstated just how much is on the line for Postecoglou’s Celtic in Warsaw.