Kyogo Furuhashi's return countered by Bayer Leverkusen slicing through Celtic's Europa League ambitions
It may seem an indication of how lowly Celtic’s European aspirations can be considered these days, that their 4-0 defeat by Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League was actually a mixed bag, however daft that might sound.
Let’s face it, it was a racing certainty a truly exciting young German side would leave Ange Postecoglou’s men with only two wins from their past eight games and bottom of their continental section following back-to-back reverses.
Right now, what is important for Postecoglou, and his club, is that they improve in the league, not push on in Europa League. And on that score, the ability to give Kyogo Furuhashi and Callum McGregor more than an hour before the club’s Sunday trip to Aberdeen - following unexpected starts for the previously-sidelined pair - could be of the greatest significance of yet another home defeat in Europe for the Parkhead side.
In terms of the contest, Furuhashi was pivotal through passing up two golden opportunities early on with the slicing movement the Germans had all over the pitch. Celtic had their moments at various spells, even after being two-down at the interval. Keeper Lukas Hradecky, who was exceptional throughout, produced three fabulous blocks in the early minutes of the second half from Jota, twice, and Furuhashi to keep Postecoglou’s men at arm’s length.
An arm eventually snuffed Celtic out, with Cameron Varter-Vickers adjudged to have had the ball cannon off his from a block shot to supply the 57th minute penalty that Lucas Alario despatched.
However, the way they are set up means Postecoglou’s men are a team that will always be picked off by good sides. Leverkusen did so with their fourth of the night, indeed, Amine Adill racing through in time added on to rub Celtic’s noses with a fourth.
Celtic Park was eerily quiet by then, which contrasted with the electric sense of anticipation that infused it over the surprise start for Furuhashi following a month on the sidelines for the club’s attacking talisman seemed to give him too much to live up to. And so it proved. Just not in the manner that might have been imagined.
In a breathless start that witnessed Levekusen having the ball into the net a mere 60 seconds in, only for the offside flag to cut short their celebrations, it was a matter of only 50 seconds more before perhaps the pivotal moment of the evening arrived.
At that point, the wispish Japanese striker suddenly found himself with the ball at his feet and only the Leverkusen keeper to beat. He did that, but then delayed before applying the coup de grace and, from nowhere, Jonathan Tah motored in to produce a superb saving block.
Incredibly, as Celtic took the game to their more gifted opponents as Postecoglou said they would, Furuhashi would miss a second opportunity to cap an enterprising opening with the opening goal after released by Liel Abada in the 19th minute. On this occasion, his decision this time to try and curl the ball, rather than himself, around the advancing keeper resulted in Hradecky blocking with his foot.
Celtic had the visitors on the rack - Carl Starfelt shortly afterwards being denied by the keeper - but, in what seemed the blink of an eye, they found themselves being stretched to breaking point.
The alacrity with which an incredibly youthful Leverkusen team could break on to them was always going to cause them heart in mouth moments. However, the frustration was that when the Germans did net 25 minutes in - as they inevitably would - it was the product of an inexplicable error from David Turnbull near the left touchline. In seeking to latch on to the ball as Tah hovered, he instead stumbled over it and tumbled to the ground, allowing his opponent to cross for Piero Hincapie to score on a full debut for his club.
In contextualising a sobering loss for Celtic, it is worth noting that this did not come against a seasoned European force. The Ecudorian Hincapie is only 19, and the scorer of Leverkusen’s second was they 18-year-old phenomenon that is Florian Witz. He pounced for a sixth goal in as many games 35 minutes in through benefitting from Celtic’s risk and reward strategy that demands their full-backs move into the centre of the pitch to play passes. Anthony Ralston did so, but when he didn’t succeed in threading through the middle and only found a blue shirt, Paulinho was played in down the right-back area he had vacated to set-up the teenage striking sensation.
At that point it looked like it could get mighty messy for Postecoglou with the speed of the movement of Bayer - one exponent, familiar in the lighting quick former Celtic player Jeremie Frimpong - appearing as if it could allow them to carve open their opponents at any moment. Credit to Celtic that they came again strongly early in the second period, even if they can’t survive at this level as they are currently configured.
Celtic: Hart; Ralston, Carter-Vickers, Starfelt, Montgomery; Rogic (Bitton 67), C McGregor (McCarthy 67), Turnbull (Giakoumakis 74); L Abada, Furuhashi (Ajeti 74), Jota
Substitutes not used: Barkas, Bain, Scales, Soro, Urhoghide, Shaw, Welsh
Bayer Leverkusen: Hradecky; Frimpong, Hincapie, Tah, Bakker; Demirbay, Aranguiz (Amiri 65); Diaby (Bellarabia 65), Wirtz (Adli 74), Paulinho; Alario (Schtick 74)
Substitutes not used: Lunev, Neutgens, , Kossounou, D Sinkgraven