Celtic progress despite Alkmaar regression as Joe Hart shows his ridiculous and sublime side

There would have been no skin left on Celtic’s teeth at the end of their night on the rack in Alkmaar.

Celtic's Carl Starfelt clears the ball as AZ Alkmaar pile on pressure during the Europa League play-off second leg (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Celtic's Carl Starfelt clears the ball as AZ Alkmaar pile on pressure during the Europa League play-off second leg (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Ultimately, all they will care about is that they still have skin in the game in the Europa League, with group stage football attained despite a 2-1 defeat that was the result of going through countless agonies.

The praise lavished on Ange Postecoglou and his players for their recent exhilarating form has been well warranted. It couldn’t be otherwise with 24 goals the product of a six-game winning run going into their Alkmaar assignment. Yet, the truth is a dicey display and dreadful individual errors that scarred the first 45 in the AFAS Stadium, spoke of regression. In the final analysis, a major backward step was avoided. However, more by good fortune than good judgement, with a first defeat in seven games for Postecoglou’s men having the feeling of a victory because it was sufficiently narrow to win the tie over two legs.

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For much of the evening, this newly-calibrated Celtic performed just as Neil Lennon’s side had across their group stage forays that took them into continental Europe last season; with the same vulnerabilities that ended their interest in the Champions League out in Midtjylland.

Celtic players celebrate after the Europa League play-off aggregate win over AZ Alkmaar. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

For all the understandable focus on Celtic’s current attacked-minded approach, scoring goals in European away games hasn’t been a problem for the club over recent times. Ahead of their Europa League play-off decider, they had netted in 14 of their previous 15 away games in the domain - the only failing a dead rubber against Cluj in the competition two seasons ago when they had already won their section. For all the horrors endured during their cross-border participation in their desperate last campaign, they were 2-0 up in the San Siro against AC Milan - before losing 4-2 - and had the same lead away to subsequent French champions Lille, before having to settle for a draw.

What has undermined such intent has been calamitious decision-making at the back. So it was again in the opening period in Alkmaar, against a jumped up home side that battered them into submission. To score inside two minutes and 10 seconds should have offered the ultimate platform for confidently seeing the tie through, supplying them an aggregate 3-0 scoreline following their 2-0 success in the first leg last week.

Yet, a seventh strike in seven games from the phenomenon that is Kyogo Furuhashi in Celtic colours merely offered short-lived respite. Not that it deserved to be appreciated any less. As much for Anthony Ralston’s vision in picking out Liel Abada rampaging down the right with a perfectly-weighted ball, and the winger’s delightful cross, as for the Japanese attacker’s slammed-in finish, it must be said.

What then ensued was so needless, and so familiar. Much has been made of the assurance that Hart has given to the club’s backline. In six minutes, the 34-year-old English international reminded he has always been capable of the ridiculous as well as the sublime, though. Criticism was directed towards Stephen Welsh for half-chesting a long ball towards his keeper. The reality is though that the monstrous problem was Hart simply waiting for the ball to roll back to him in order to kick it away as Zakaria Aboukhlal steamed towards him. The punishment was dished out fully when the striker pinched the ball and left the keeper stranded before knocking it into the empty net. God help Vasilis Barkas or Scott Bain had they been guilty of such a blunder. In Hart’s defence, he subsequently produced three big saves to in some way redeem himself.

These stops came either side of the interval and when the tie had been plunged right back into the melting pot by a moment from Carl Starfelt when his mind seemed to melt.

A cross swung into the box 26 minutes in should have been easy enough for the centre-back to clear. Instead, he took a ridiculous swipe - a fully comical clumping, scuff hit - to merely succeed in seeing it dribble into the net.

At that point you wouldn’t have given tuppence for Celtic not conceding another goal. Alkmaar, with their relentless pressing and energy, coupled by some no-holds physicality, appeared to have Postecoglou’s men’s number.

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The loss of Greg Taylor, who three times went down with a shoulder problem before being forced off, late in the first half just felt like it would be one more blow to fell them. Instead, his replacement Adam Montgomery was one of those that stood up as Celtic scrambled through in a second period they survived by the skin of their teeth - Ernest Poku missing an open goal in the closing minutes - but in no small part the introduction of Odsonne Edouard midway through the second half for Tom Rogic gave them greater periods of relief. The objective of the night was achieved. Somehow.

AZ Alkmaar: Verhulst, Sugawara, Martins Indi, Midtsjo (Beukema 75), T Koopmeiners, De Wit, Karlsson, Witry, Aboukhlal (Poku 71), Pavlidis (Gudmundsson 71), Letschert.

Substitutes: Reus, Hatzidiakos, Evjen, Clasie, Taabouni, Reijnders, Oosting, P Koopmeiners.

Celtic: Hart, Ralston, Welsh, Starfelt, Taylor, (Montgomery 24), McGregor, Turnbull, Abada, Rogic (Edouard 60), Christie, Kyogo (Soro 86).

Substitutes: Barkas, Bain, Bitton, Ajeti, Bolingoli, Urhoghide, Shaw, Robertson.

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