Why Celtic's trip to Bodo/Glimt will make history for either the right or wrong reason
Precedence simply doesn’t allow any cogent claims to be promoted for Ange Postecoglou’s men overturning their 3-1 first leg deficit in Norway’s frozen Arctic to earn a berth in the last 16 of the Conference League. In knock-out ties across the club’s near 60 years competing in Europe, Celtic have never come close to pulling off such an act of escapology as they must perform in Bodo on Thursday. A feat required to avoid the very real possibility of becoming the first team to be dumped out of three European competitions in the same season.
Now, admittedly, the sample size is decidedly small. But Celtic have never recovered from two-goals down in an away decider in European competition. Only once, indeed, have they lost a home first leg and not subsequently exited. That came under Tony Mowbray in a Champions League third round qualifier against Dinamo Moscow in August 2009. Trailing 1-0 following a meek showing in Glasgow’s east end, they found their mojo in the Russian capital to secure the required 2-0 victory. On four other occasions have Celtic succeeded in flipping a tie on its head from the seemingly hopeless position of finding themselves two goals down following the first leg. However, key to them eliminating St Etienne from the European Cup in 1972, prevailing against Sporting Lisbon in the UEFA Cup 39 years ago, overcoming Cologne in the UEFA Cup in 1992, and staging a memorable Champions League play-off comeback against Shakhter Karagandy nine years ago was their ability to repair the damage while driven on by their own punters at a pumped-up Parkhead.
It will be a very different story in Bodo - ensuring that the present, as well as the past, counts against Postecoglou’s men in all respects. The Norwegian champions’ astute manager Kjetil Knutsen stated in his pre-match press conference that conditions at the 5,600-capacity Aspmyra Stadion, sold out for the occasion, “will be awful”. It wasn’t a statement offered up as any attempt at mind-games but rather based on meteorological predictions. The players, spectators and, crucially, plastic pitch on which they will be performing is set to be lashed by driving sleet with a wind chill temperature of minus five. There are good reasons why Bodo/Glimt are currently in their close season, the Norwegian leagues running from March to November.
It could be contended, of course, that such wildness lends itself to unpredictability. Celtic will certainly need to produce the unexpected on the back of a first leg when their opponents seemed to know precisely how to play them. Postecoglou created headlines in his pre-match by stating he would not consider changing his team’s approach. That isn’t the issue here. The concern for Celtic should be that Bodo are unlikely to change theirs. And even if the Australian asserted that the difference between the teams in the first leg was merely that Knutsen’s men were clinical while his team were not, the evidence presented by the naked eye suggested there was more to the first leg result than that. Bodo essentially sucked Celtic in and picked them off. For all the recent natter about Celtic’s vulnerabilities from set-pieces, Bodo three times struck by playing through them, artfully and with alacrity.
The Norwegians’ adept display may have belied the fact that they hadn’t played a competitive encounter in two months. But it very much underlined why they are now on a 30-match unbeaten run, a sequence that includes their now oft-quoted, remarkable 6-1 home slaughter of Roma in the group stages.
The slither of hope for Celtic might be considered the presence of Giorgos Giakoumakis in the central striker role. Fresh from his weekend hat-trick against Dundee, the Greek forward started the first leg on the bench. Yet, Postecoglou doesn’t have any truck with the notion that the outcome of the tie could come down to the service to, and returns from, a single player. “Our approach is we get goals from multiple avenues,” the Celtic manager said. "Giakoumakis scored three goals, but over the whole season they have been shared around and that will be the key tomorrow, it won't be about one person. The reason we score so many goals is that we have multiple goal threats and that will be the approach again tomorrow because that is our approach every week."
Celtic have scored plenty in away assignments in Europe this season. And, in respect of the three goals away to Real Betis and the two netted at the home of Bayer Leverkusen, against teams far higher up the footballing food chain than Bodo. Yet, they have conceded even more, losing away to that pair by the odd goal, and enduring reverses in all but two of their six European sorties. Yet, if they fail to produce something spectacular in Bodo, it certainly won’t be because they declined to train on the Norwegians’ artificial surface, a decision questioned in some quarters.
"Here in Scotland we obviously have exposure to artificial pitches, we have already had two games this year on an artiificial pitch, so there is not a great deal to be gained,” said Postecoglou, by way of explanation. "Every week has a different challenge. If you are expecting that after one session you are going to find some miracle on an artificial pitch that you haven't thought about, that is going to win you the game, then you fall into the wrong trap. I have been involved in football for a long time, especially at national team level but even in Australia, where you have to deal with extreme climatic conditions, extreme pitch conditions.
“When I was with the national team we were travelling from cold climates to the Middle East in literally 24 hours, bumpy pitches to slow pitches and what I found in the end is that the best approach is to make sure that your players are always prepared to deal with whatever challenges there are. There are no easy solutions. Us flying there today and having a session on their pitch is going to make absolutely zero difference. Us being here, getting a good training session with the boys, getting them prepared for a difficult game tomorrow is much more important to me.”
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