Overlooked European first for Celtic under Ange Postecoglou provides grounds for Champions League optimism

It was inevitable that the focus fell on Celtic’s inefficiency in front of goal following their 1-1 draw with Shakhtar Dontesk.

Celtic's Cameron Carter-Vickers growing assurance has helped Ange Postecoglou's men bolster their defensive solidity in the European arena.  (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
Celtic's Cameron Carter-Vickers growing assurance has helped Ange Postecoglou's men bolster their defensive solidity in the European arena. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

A shedload of missed chances in a dominant display on matchday two of their Champions League campaign made that unavoidable. But the ability of Ange Postecoglou’s men to restrict opportunities for their Ukrainian opponents ultimately could be of greater significance. Allied to the numbers gleaned from their defensive display even in the 3-0 home loss to Real Madrid in their Group F opener, the signs point to growing backline solidity for Celtic in continental comfrontations.

The draw against Dontesk was the eighth European away game in which Postecoglou has helmed the Glasgow club. It can be set apart from the previous seven through being the first such encounter in which Celtic have not conceded at least two goals. More than that, Shakhtar scored once from fashioning only two efforts on target. On that measure, half as many as the previous lowest total in an overseas assignment for Postecoglou’s side - which came when Ferencvaros had four on-targets when defeated 3-2 by Celtic in last season’s Europa League group stages. That evening, the Hungarians produced 15 goal attempts. In sharp contrast to the five constructed by Shakhtar.

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Unsurprisingly, Champions League holders Real Madrid fared better in their Celtic Park victory last week. Yet, their six on targets and 12 attempts were still down on these counts last season for the Australian’s team against calibre opposition. In Celtic’s 4-0 home loss to Bayer Leverkusen the comparable figures were 11 and 18, with the tallies in the 3-2 defeat away to the Germans seven and 16. The 4-3 Real Betis reverse in Seville brought seven on-targets and 19 goal attempts for Celtic’s vanquishers. And even when defeating the same club 3-2 at Parkhead, the respective figures were seven and 19.

The concession of four goals in two outings ahead of Celtci’s home-and-away double header against RB Leipzig next month on which they qualification prospects will pivot is hardly watertight form. Indeed, the total is at the high end when comparing all 32 group srage combatants. Yet, every one of the goals Celtic have shipped have been smartly engineered and executed. None of them down to Postecoglou’s aggressive, front foot approach leaving them too open, or from switching off defensively - as seemed intractably issues in cross-border competition last season.

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Unquestionably, Celtic’s ability to impose themselves on Madrid for 50 minutes and do so, essentially, for a full 70 minutes against Shakhtar has been crucial to appearing more assured at the back, overall. But the clear development of players such as Greg Taylor and Cameron Carter-Vickers from last autumn, allied to refinement within Postecoglou’s system, must also be factored in. Certainly, a Leipzig under the new management of Marco Rose - fresh from coming within 10 minutes of earning a draw at the Bernabeau - will firmly challenge Celtic’s burgeoning backline resolve in Germany on October 5 (even if they lost 4-1 at home to the Ukrainians only last week, the catalyst for turning to Rose). Yet, early indications from Group F suggest Celtic will also be capable of testing Leipzig’s mettle.

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