Why defensive solidity proves Celtic’s progress under Brendan Rodgers

Celtic's defence has held together despite requiring emergency cover from Nir Bitton. Picture: SNS
Celtic's defence has held together despite requiring emergency cover from Nir Bitton. Picture: SNS
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Across his 15 months in charge of Celtic, Brendan Rodgers has set about creating more landmarks than an ambitious tourist board. In the Astana Arena this evening another couple are within the grasp of his side.

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The Kazakhstan return leg of the, supposed-to-be, fraught Champions League play-off tie was rendered a formality through Rodgers’ men roaring to a 5-0 battering of their opponents in Glasgow last week. That lopsided scoreline makes them copper-bottomed to be in Thursday’s group-stage draw. While the five-goal haul ensured that will be the case, the zero in the goals-against column could be more significant than might have been initially imagined.

That is rendered so because, as the fifth straight clean-sheet in this qualifying campaign for the Scottish title-holders, it offers them the chance to equal their longest-ever run of consecutive shut-outs in Europe. If they do that they will also have won three knock-out ties back-to-back in cross-border competition without the concession of a goal for the first time across their 55 years appearing at this level.

The climax of this period arrived, of course, with the glorious campaign Celtic enjoyed in 1966-67, when they achieved the quadruple which included becoming the first British side to lift the European Cup. It followed on from an often-overlooked continental tilt of genuine accomplishment, one in which Jock Stein – in his first season at Celtic jousting with overseas opponents – served notice of his ability to mould teams to prosper in this domain.

Celtic reached the semi-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup that season where they were undone by a goal wrongly ruled out offside in the second leg against Liverpool at Anfield.That 2-0 defeat ended hopes of Celtic meeting Borussia Dortmund in a final at Hampden, but they had conceded only once on the way to the last four – in the return leg of their quarter-final victory over Dynamo Kyiv.

Prior to that they played five games without the concession of a goal. That sequence followed a scoreless draw at home to Barcelona in the previous season’s Inter-Cities Fair Cup, a result that forced Celtic to exit at the second round as it followed a 3-1 reverse in the Camp Nou.

Now clean sheets against Barca and Dynamo Kyiv can hardly be bracketed with shutting-out Linfield home and away, and doing likewise against Rosenborg ahead of hoping to complete a treble of blank ties through facing up to a club from Kazakhstan.

The format of the competition for the champions of lowly-ranked Scotland brings the probability of three qualifying rounds against countries also modestly placed in the co-efficient stakes.

Yet, in recent years, that hasn’t prevented Celtic exhibiting a porousness in qualifying that has been in sharp contrast to the solidity they have demonstrated over the past month.

Indeed, only last year, as Rodgers was pitched into his most crucial games of the season, Celtic coughed up goals on a regular basis. Following the embarrassing 1-0 defeat against Lincoln Red Imps in Gibraltar with which he made his competitive bow, only one clean sheet followed in the 13 European games that progress to the Champions League secured. Notably, Celtic lost goals in five of their six qualifying ties when, at worst, the stat for this season will be only one in six.

Rodgers, pictured, impresses upon his players, and preaches in public, the need for progress. A Champions League qualifying campaign wherein the club’s participation in the competition proper has never seriously been under threat has offered that. It is a tangible example of the advancement under him that consistently marks out his work as deeply impressive. Achieving a faultless defensive record in the process would be another. A feat that the Irishman and his players would be entitled to savour.

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