This matchday three clash away at RB Leipzig was a group-framer. Win and they would go into the return round of fixtures with the Germans, Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Madrid with impetus and momentum. Draw and at least they would be above Marco Rose’s men. But lose to them and there is no more margin for error.
Defeat it was, though, in Germany. RB Leipzig triumphed 3-1 in one of those entertaining, end-to-end matches that you just can’t take your eyes off. Celtic contributed to the drama in spades and had their chances, but there was no reward. They are bottom of Group F with a solitary point to their name.
The biggest difference between these two adventurous teams is being clinical. RB Leipzig profited from having more lucidity in the final third. Christopher Nkunku opened the scoring and Andre Silva proceeded to score twice thereafter, the Portuguese cancelling out his countryman Jota’s equaliser for Celtic early in the second half.
Leipzig have greater European pedigree over the last four years and it showed. The guts of this Celtic team are still undertaking a Champions League education, as well as their manager Ange Postecoglou. They went into this match without their two injured first-choice centre-halves in Cameron Carter-Vickers and Carl Starfelt. Their deputies, Stephen Welsh and Moritz Jenz, were largely blameless. It was a more experienced head who let the side down at the key moment. Goalkeeper Joe Hart passed the ball straight to Dominik Szoboszlai to set up Silva to make it 2-1 just moments after Celtic had been let off the hook by a very contentious VAR call.
What made the night even more miserable for Celtic was a knee injury to their captain Callum McGregor, who hurt it in the build-up to RB Leipzig’s opener and could not last many more minutes thereafter. The severity of McGregor’s injury is unknown but he has to be a doubt for next week’s return game in Glasgow, if not the rest of the Champions League campaign. Oliver Abdilgaard replaced him but the on-loan Rubin Kazan man has not played much and it showed as RB Leipzig gradually took control of midfield, allowing them to attack at will.
It’s now simple for Celtic: they have to win their next two Champions League matches, both at home, against RB Leipzig and Shakhtar Donetsk to maintain hopes of (a) finishing second and (b) staying in the hunt for third place and the parachute of the Europa League. Even then, they may require a result at the Santiago Bernabeu against Real Madrid when the group phase concludes in early November. Postecoglou is very unlikely to abandon his philosophy of playing open, attacking football but there will be some questions as to whether his team are a little too audacious on this stage.
The game started in frantic fashion with both sides having several chances inside the opening 10 minutes. Timo Werner and Nkunku threatened for the hosts while Matt O’Riley, Jota and Reo Hatate saw the sting taken out of shots by blocks at the other end.
Celtic’s first reprieve came when Nkunku was denied by a tight offside decision after dinking the ball over Hart.
Leipzig’s opener came immediately after a spell of Celtic pressure. Kyogo Furuhashi saw a header well saved before Jenz shot over from a good chance after Greg Taylor had a shot spilled.
Furuhashi then saw his shot deflected wide after being gifted possession on the edge of the box.
The ball was in Celtic’s net 16 seconds after the resulting corner. McGregor took a heavy touch 25 yards out and lost the ball in a challenge before inadvertently diverting it into Nkunku’s path as he tracked back. The France international took the ball round Hart and squeezed it in between the near post and the sliding Josip Juranovic.
There was a double whammy as McGregor struggled with a knock from the initial tackle and eventually went off. Recent signing Abildgaard came on days after making his debut as an 89th-minute substitute against Motherwell.
Furuhashi came close with a header but Celtic struggled in the closing stages of the half, with Hart making a save and Taylor putting in a good block.
The visitors regrouped at half-time and levelled within two minutes of the restart after Hatate received a loose pass and instantly played it forward to Furuhashi. The striker squared to Jota who slotted home with his left foot.
Celtic could not build on the equaliser, though. Szoboszlai hit the post after a one-two with Nkunku and then saw his celebrations cut short after finding the bottom corner from 25 yards. The goal was disallowed after footage showed that the offside Silva had ducked underneath the strike in the line of Hart’s vision.
Celtic conceded less than 60 seconds after the let-off. Hart played a pass straight to Szoboszlai who fed Silva to finish in off the post to restore the German side’s lead in the 64th minute.
Postecoglou’s men could not recover. Hart saved well from Silva but the Portugal international scored again in the 77th minute when he took a touch and stabbed home from six yards after right-back Mohamed Simakan cushioned a volley into his path following Nkunku’s diagonal ball.
Leipzig continued to dominate but they were unable to add to their tally, which could be important if head-to-head records and goal difference come into play at the end of the group.