Ange Postecoglou chasing historic Celtic first by refusing to play it safe in Leverkusen
It can feel that 13 is an unlucky number for Celtic when it comes to their pivotal Europa League encounter with Bayer Leverkusen.
In taking them to German soil, the club’s penultimate game in Group G pitches them into a domain where the club have rarely avoided numbing disappointment. Owing to the complexion of their section, it seems certain that, to retain any prospect of progressing in the competition, Ange Postecoglou’s men will require to avoid defeat against a Bayer Leverkusen side that whipped them 4-0 in Glasgow two months ago.
As if that wasn’t a tall enough order in itself, history hardly provides reasons for optimism. Across almost 60 years of competing in continental competition, Celtic have fared worse against German clubs than those from the other big five leagues of England, Spain, Italy and France. A major factor in this is what has ensued when they have faced German teams on their own patch. Celtic have never won in Germany in 12 previous European visits, avoiding defeat in only three of these outings.
Yet, if looking for a slither of hope, it could come in the fact that they have never sought to go toe-to-toe with any opponent in such circumstances - all their previous sorties to this part of the world coming subsequent to the Lisbon Lions’ era. It can be curious how the football world turns. When Postecoglou’s men were taken apart by Leverkusen in the last day of September – despite having 55% possession and fashioning as many goal attempts, a whopping 18, as their vanquishers – questions were raised over the Australian’s refusal to deviate from his attack-focused strategy. Now, following eight wins and a draw for Celtic in their nine games since that Leverkusen lashing, most would accept that the only approach for Postecoglou’s team to take in the BayArena is a front-footed one. That speaks not just of how the 56-year-old has succeeded in altering perceptions but an appreciation that his team simply aren’t equipped to sit in and scrap for a point.
Refreshingly honest, Postecoglou offered up a “don’t think so” when asked if he felt the Bundesliga club would find themselves up against a different Celtic team as a result of their recent form upturn. He makes no grand predictions over what Celtic could produce against a team “quick in the transition” and “with quality players throughout”. All he hopes for is that his team can avoid the moments of defensive slackness that allowed Gerardo Castro’s side to pick them off last time.
“We are obviously more settled, and before that game, Kyogo [Furuhashi] had been out for a month and that was his first game back. Callum [McGregor] had been out for three weeks and it was his first game back. So we were going through a very unsettled period and we are definitely more settled, but the fabric, the core of the side and the way we want to play won’t be that different,” said the Celtic manager.
“We did [create plenty last time] but we also conceded four goals. We have to make sure that we are concentrating all of the time and well disciplined in our approach. They are a team that will wait on any mistakes we make and punish us. When the first game was at 0-0 in the first 20-odd minutes, we probably created the better chances, but then we made a mistake and they scored and we lost our composure and concentration for a little bit. It’s always a tough battle away from home in Europe and especially this one. It’s important we have our concentration levels and discipline when we have the ball and, if we make mistakes, we don’t let the opposition punish us for it.
“It’s a massive challenge. We are playing one of the top teams in Europe. To all intents and purposes they are a Champions League side and we are playing them in their backyard, so the goal can’t be underestimated. But we have to go there and see how we measure up against that.
“[Leaving nothing out there] is the only way you can do that. If we fall short, at least we’ll know we’ve given it all and we’ll know where we need to improve. But if you go out there sort of trying to just have self preservation or playing safe or not going out with the intention of leaving everything out there, you’ll never really know. That’s what we’ll do in every game, take on the challenge and, hopefully, we can be successful and move on from there.”
It was put to Postecoglou that his players have more “come out of their shells” since they were eventually cowed by Leverkusen in their last meeting, emboldened by finding a winning touch regularly in the past two months. The bedding in of players such as Jota and Cameron-Carter Vickers, who in September had only been at the club a matter of weeks, can certainly be factored into that. So too can the sharp contrast of having won only two of seven games leading-up to the clubs’ first Group G confrontation. The Celtic manager eschews seeing his side’s development in such simplistic terms, though.
“There’s no doubt results help with belief and our confidence, but I’ve tried to make sure the attitude doesn’t change,” he said. “Even when we were going through a rocky spell, the way we train, the way we conduct and present ourselves, you can’t just be dependent on results. We have got to believe in ourselves, go out and take a game to opponents. Work hard every day in training. That’s the key to being successful. If you just wait for things to go well for you and don’t come out of your shell, you are going to miss opportunities. We’re settled, the team has belief, but in terms of approach and our daily interaction with each other, it’s still the same. It’s the focus being on the best team we can be.”
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