Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers singled out his youthful centre-back pairing of Jack Hendry and Kristoffer Ajer for special praise after a clean sheet in Trondheim ensured the club’s passage to a Champions League third round qualifying tie against AEK Athens.
Rodgers conceded his team failed to hit the heights in the scoreless draw away to Rosenborg last night, which followed a 3-1 first-leg victory, but in Hendry and Ajer he had two performers who ensured Celtic accomplished the required task, and took them to the halfway point in a qualifying campaign that requires them to negotiate four rounds to reach the Champions League group stages for a third consecutive year.
“Jack Hendry and Kris Ajer were outstanding,” he said. “They are young centre-halves and they’ll learn a lot from tonight. You’ll not always play perfect football but you’ve always got to defend and win headers, so to come away and keep a clean sheet was very pleasing and now on to the next round.
“I think we showed the maturity with the players in how they are developing. I said to them afterwards I’m very proud. OK, we’ll play better football and we need to be cleaner with our passing and build-up, but what you’ve got to show is a mentality to defend and I thought we did that exceptionally well.
“We didn’t play well in first half, didn’t pass the ball well enough. So we tweaked the side slightly at half-time in order for us to build the game from behind and for the first 20, 25 minutes we had decent control without creating so much. The last 15 minutes they put balls into the box but we dealt with that.”
Rodgers said he was “not sure” that AEK will represent a notable step up in difficulty from the Norwegian champions, as is generally believed, and said he was “not bothered” that the Greeks will be faced at home first – the match to be played in Glasgow next Tuesday or Wednesday.
“You certainly have to take advantage and that’s what we’ve done in the campaigns since I’ve been here by bringing our aggression,” the Celtic manager said. “If you’ve got your first leg at home you can bring a scoreline that can get you through. If you think of the Be’er-Sheva first leg we did that [with a 5-2 win], Astana the home leg got us through [with a 5-0 win] and obviously the home leg in this tie got us through [after we won 3-1]. I’m pleased with the players’ resilience, especially a young group, that are evolving and getting better.
“I’ll watch AEK now we’re definitely playing them. They are eleven human beings, we’ll be at home and it will be a difficult game, but it will be a difficult game for them also.”