Celtic are a much improved side 12 months on
We knew this already, but this was the confirmation. Spectacular, ruthless, inarguable confirmation.
Just over a year ago Celtic moved into the play-off round of the Champions League by squeezing past Astana following a nervy 180 minutes of football. They rode their luck at times in the first leg - perhaps due in part to a centre-back pairing of Efe Ambrose and Eoghan O’Connell - and needed two penalties to secure victory in the return match.
Astana insisted they were a better side this time around, a point backed up by their league and cup double last season, and the fact they’re currently seven points ahead of the chasing pack at the top of the Kazakhstan Premier League. Yet, they were completely blown away by a Celtic stride that’s made massive strides in the previous 12 months.
The second half was a ruination of everything Astana were supposed to represent as a formidable opponent. In attack they were held at arm’s length, in midfield they were mercilessly bullied, and their defence was ripped apart. Imagine what the score could have been like if Celtic hadn’t taken half an hour to properly get going. Depending on the luck of the draw, they must fancy their chances of making some serious headway in the group stages this time around.
Astana were defensively fragile (and mentally weak)
Advertised as a disciplined, defensively sound, organised unit, Astana were anything but on the Parkhead pitch.
The first two goals could barely have been softer from their point of view. Yes, Tom Rogic went on a terrific run for the opener, but he was allowed to slalom through the defence with ease before Evgeni Postnikov knocked the ball into the back of his own net with a panicked attempt at a clearance he didn’t need to make.
Fittingly, in the build up to that goal, Evgeni Postnikov pulled out of a challenge on the edge of the penalty area. If only he’d used similar restraint at the third goal, instead of crashing into the back of Rogic’s head, leaving himself and the Australian in a heap on the ground the remaining defenders in a two-on-two scenario with Leigh Griffiths and Scott Sinclair.
In between those strikes, an inadvertent through ball from László Kleinheisler sent Sinclair through on goal for the second, with the centre backs again slow to respond, where the Celtic attacker forced the ball beyond the weak wrists of Aleksandr Mokin.
Coming out for the second half, the situation wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t the end of the world. A 2-1 defeat would still have been a good result and, knowing this, Stanimir Stoilov didn’t alter anything at the half. But while Celtic were great after the break, Astana never got going. They’d been broken by the two goals lost. They didn’t have the required urgency, intensity or belief that they’d haul themselves back into the tie.
Scott Sinclair’s “slow start” is no more
Chris Sutton made mention of Scott Sinclair’s slow start to the 2017/18 on numerous occasions in the first half of the BT Sport broadcast, which may seem rather odd to the casual listener. Having stuck a double past Linfield and netted against Hearts on the opening day of the league season, he went into the game with three goals in six games.
It’s an indication of just how high Sinclair’s reputation has risen in 12 months that quiet attacking performances against Rosenborg and Partick Thistle were enough to merit talk of a slump. Regardless, he’s surely blown away such criticism with his display against Astana.
In fairness to Sutton, the attacker did look a little subdued in the opening 20 minutes or so. But as the game wore on and the goals racked up, including two for Sinclair, you could see the confidence coursing through him. Suddenly there was an enthusiasm to his play, as he began to drop deeper, demand the ball from team-mates and charge towards the opposing defence with real gusto.
James Forrest comes up trumps again
A player who divides opinion among the Parkhead support, he stepped up to the mark again on the big stage. His crossing, not typically one his strengths, caused Astana some real problems before the break, while his holding of a wide position helped keep the shape of the side and open up the avenues for Celtic to cut their opponents open through the middle.
He topped off an excellent performance with a well taken goal and must feel, amid talk of Patrick Roberts’ imminent return, that at the very least he’s beaten out Jonny Hayes as the No.1 option from the bench should the Manchester City man make his return to Parkhead.
Brown continues to be the heart of this team
Having been largely wasteful with the football in Celtic’s victory over Rosenborg in the last round, the captain bounced back in a big way during Wednesday night’s match.
During the first half, where the attacking players were taking a while to get into their stride, Brown was arguably the best player on the park.
He showed an incredible knack for anticipating exactly where the Astana counter-attack would try to go, and would snuff it out before they even managed to reach the halfway line. He dominated the physical battle, and when he got his foot on the ball he stayed calm, composed and always found a player in green and white hoops.