Small details can make a big difference
Olivier Ntcham’s game can broken down into two parts: before and after the opening goal. Prior to his visionary, perfectly-weighted through ball for Kieran Tierney, he could barely do anything right. He was ponderous and unsure of himself in possession. His passes were sloppy. And he was a hazard to his own defence. After Leigh Griffiths opened the scoring, getting on the end of an equally excellent follow-up pass, this one from Tierney, Ntcham was a player transformed. He was confident, combative and played a huge part in Celtic’s improvement second half performance.
While the goal was an obvious watershed, there were a couple of signs that Ntcham was improving in the immediate minutes leading up to it. Sitting a lot deeper than Tom Rogic, almost alongside Scott Brown in Celtic’s 4-1-4-1, the Frenchman found himself pressured into mistakes too often. The area was too congested for him to operate. So Brendan Rodgers encouraged him to push a little bit higher up the park and move out to the left a little more, working with Tierney and Scott Sinclair.
It wasn’t a huge change. Only a few yards laterally and vertically, but it gave him just enough space in which to play his game that little bit better and Celtic benefited as a result. The transformation in his performance was complete when he won back possession before slipping through Scott Sinclair to score the third goal.
Anderlecht were even worse than advertised
Celtic may have been unfortunate to draw both PSG and Bayern Munich in the same group, but at least they appear to have got some luck with regards to their Pot 3 opponent. Anderlecht, the Belgian champions, have endured a torrid start to the league season. Though they’ve been victorious in their last two games since the sacking of Rene Weiler (one of those a cup match) they still appear no closer to rediscovering the mojo that had them going toe-to-toe with Manchester United in the latter stages of the Europa League last term.
There were some things they did well - Henry Onyekuru looks a real threat while Sofianne Hanni will feel he should have scored at least once - but really they were mediocre at their best and calamitous at their worst.
Celtic’s second goal was a disastrously mishandled situation from the home side’s point of view. Leander Dendoncker, running on to a loose pass from Tierney, opted against putting the ball up the field or out for a throw, and instead chose to send it back across his area to Olivier Deschacht, who had Celtic players closing in from two different angles. Instead of knocking the ball long in any direction, inexplicably, Deschacht tried some ill-advised flick. What he foresaw happening after he executed this piece of skill, only he will know. What actually happened was that Patrick Roberts took possession, shot for goal and, just to put the cherry on top of this cake of catastrophe, Kara Mbodji deflected the easily savable effort past his own goalkeeper.
Celtic perfected the offside trap
With 40 minutes left and playing at home, Anderlecht would still have fancied their chances of getting something out of the game if they could just pull one goal back. But while there were a few half-chances, mainly from distance, largely the Celtic defence shut them down. This was done in no small part thanks to a regimented back four that worked in perfect harmony to catch Anderlecht’s attackers offside time and again, crushing any chance of the hosts building some real momentum.
Considering this was only the second time the unit had played together this season, it highlights the organisation of the first team squad.
Anderlecht may be a different animal next time - but it might not matter
Nicolas Frutos had four games in which to show he’s the man to lead Anderlecht forward, and it’s safe to say he’s not achieved that goal. Sure there were victories in his first two games, but the performances were not much better. He needed to get a positive result against Celtic, and instead they were thumped at home.
The most galling aspect for the home fans would have been the style of play. The previous coach was criticised for his defensive approach, which perhaps accelerated Weiler’s sacking when other managers may have been granted more time. Frutos expressed his desire to play more attacking football, but it was anything but against Celtic. The gameplan seemed to revolve around sitting in a 5-2-3 when their visitors had the ball, before quickly springing to a 3-4-3. Celtic were a little unsure of how to keep possession and successfully play their way through the hosts in the beginning, but once they had it figured out there was nowhere for Anderlecht to go.
When the Belgian side travel to Glasgow for the return fixture they will have a new manager in place and should be an improved side. That being said, the 3-0 win almost guarantees Celtic a better head-to-head record, so unless Anderlecht take something off PSG or Bayern, tonight’s match could have killed any realistic hope of the Belgians finishing ahead of Celtic in third.
Roberts shows he can do the Forrest role
Some thought James Forrest would come back into the team for this game. The case for the Scottish internationalist starting ahead of Roberts revolves around three aspects: his speed, his tactical discipline, and his defensive work. Roberts may have just removed two of those advantages with Wednesday night’s performance.
He can’t match Forrest for speed. Except from maybe Cristian Gamboa, it’s unlikely that anyone can at Celtic. But what he did do was cover his defensive assignment, French wing-back Dennis Appiah, with real vigour. Anderlecht often looked to use their wing-backs to cross the ball and have their three forwards attack the penalty area, so helping to shut down that avenue was an important role. Furthermore, even when he wasn’t been used as much as he’d like, often left on the right wing for long periods, he kept the shape of the team and didn’t drift too far inside looking for the ball.
It may be time for this writer to stop including Forrest in the Celtic starting XI prediction for future matches.