Craig Fowler gives his take after Celtic reach the Champions League group stages after surviving a bizarre second half against Astana.
It wouldn’t be Celtic in Europe without a bit of drama
Last year against Hapoel Beer-Sheva, Celtic seemed hell bent on making things hard for themselves. First they let their visitors pull two quick goals back at Celtic Park, turning an almost insurmountable lead into a precarious one. Then, after they’d extended their advantage back to three goals by the conclusion of the first leg, they conceded a couple of soft efforts in the return fixture, ensuring a nervy final 42 minutes to reach the Champions League group stages.
Fast forward 12 months and Brendan Rodgers’ men once again managed to net five times in the first leg of their play-off encounter. Only this time, against Astana, they don’t concede at all. No team had ever let a 5-0 lead slip in the return leg, surely Celtic weren’t going to to be the first. Right?
In the end, a total collapse was never really on the cards, but things did get a lot nervier than they should have been. After Patrick Twumasi made it 4-1, leaving Astana needing to score three times in the final 20 minutes, the Ghanaian midfielder went close on a further two occasions before Olivier Ntcham put the tie beyond any shred of doubt.
They could have played like they did in the first leg or, indeed, the way they started the second, confidently stroking the ball about and keeping Astana at arm’s length. They *could* have, but where’s the fun in that?
Celtic lulled themselves into a false sense of security
Prior to the game, you wondered whether Astana would fly out of the traps, similar to the way Celtic did against Artmedia Bratislava 12 years ago when the Hoops made their own valiant attempt at coming back from a 5-0 first leg defeat. Instead, it looked similar to the first leg. Celtic knocked the ball around with ease and had a couple of early chances. Scott Brown, with Ntcham as his deputy, bossed the midfield and it looked like the whole thing would be a bit of a snoozefest for the neutral.
Then a degree of complacency began to creep into Celtic’s play. The passing was a little off. Those at the back, Mikael Lustig, Nir Bitton and Scott Brown in particular, were taking chances and not hitting their targets. However, when Astana got themselves a goal after Kristoffer Ajer inadvertently deflected the ball past Craig Gordon, it quickly fired them back into life with Scott Sinclair rifling into the top corner.
The half-time was poised to be a non-event, though it was anything but. Brown’s early pass, which led to Serikzhan Muzhikov’s goal, set the tempo. Celtic were too cocky and suddenly Astana were alive. The home side began playing with real verve and dynamism, and the visitors, having slipped into first gear, were finding it hard to keep up.
In the end, though, it was too much of a mountain to climb for Astana, while Celtic still retained their threat on the counter. Ntcham and Leigh Griffiths added late goals and, in truth, they could have had a couple more on the night.
Astana will regret their passive first-half performance
Astana boss Stanimir Stoilov said before the game that Celtic were “99 per cent through”. One had to wonder whether he was telling the media and wider public one thing, but his players something entirely different in private. From their first half showing, though, it looked like the hosts were going through the motions, at least in comparison to their second half display.
Twumasi and Marin Tomasov, flanking lone striker Junior Kabananga, seemed encouraged to stay forward so the hosts would have bodies forward in attack, though they lacked the self-belief to cause Celtic’s covering defenders, even in a makeshift backline, any real problems when they did get the opportunity. And their positioning caused Astana issues in defence, with James Forrest able to run at his marker and Kieran Tierney given free reign to support Scott Sinclair on the opposite flank. On another night Celtic would have killed the game off completely before the hosts discovered some confidence in their half-time oranges.
Olivier Ntcham has improved Celtic at the European level
Brendan Rodgers went with his summer signing in the starting XI ahead of Tom Rogic and Stuart Armstrong and he was again rewarded with a top showing from the Frenchman. Celtic’s best player on the night, he belied his inexperience at the Champions League level with a mature showing, even though his team-mates were losing their heads all around him.
Not only does the midfielder have the physical attributes to succeed in games of such stature, his purposeful and composed passing contributes greatly to his side’s attacking gameplan, while he again showed himself to be a deceptive threat from deep.
His style makes him an ideal partner for Brown in tougher contests, which suggests the 21-year-old is in line to play a huge part in the group stages. Luckily for Celtic, he doesn’t look fazed by the prospect.
Seriously, Nir Bitton is not a centre-back
That’s now two starts in five where the Israeli has not covered himself in glory at the heart of Celtic’s defence, and on this occasion there can be no doubt that he isn’t ready to perform in the makeshift position on a full-time basis at the Champions League level. In fact, after failing to execute basic man-marking duties throughout most of the second half, with incoming signing Rivaldo Coetzee set to join in the next couple of days, and Kristoffer Ajer outperforming him in this fixture, it may be the last time we see Bitton in the unfamiliar role in his Celtic career. And considering the competition for places in his natural home of central midfield, it does not bode well for the 25-year-old.