It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that Celtic fielded a “B team” in Leipzig last night. With Kieran Tierney, Odsonne Edouard, Dedryck Boyata, Olivier Ntcham, Callum McGregor and Craig Gordon in their ranks, they had a slew of their major players on the pitch.
The fact that the other positions were taken up by bit-part performers, though, made Brendan Rodgers’ selection very much of the B+ variety. Yet, although rare outings were given to such as Ryan Christie, Cristian Gamboa, Lewis Morgan, Eboue Kouassi and Jozo Simunovic – later forced off on a stretcher – that doesn’t explain away another forgettable effort on the continent for the Scottish champions. Not in any respect.
Whatever the personnel, all too often the displays Celtic serve up in exacting European away games rarely rate above the D- grade. They might have fared better if they had not lost Scott Brown and Tom Rogic to injury, Leigh Griffiths to illness and been deprived of James Forrest to suspension, while no risk was taken with the knock-carrying Filip Benkovic. Yet there is no guarantee that would have been the case since all but the on-loan Leicester City centre-back have featured in such lame reverses as the one inflicted on them by their hosts last night.
With the concession of two goals inside four minutes just as they appeared following a goalless first half hour, Celtic exhibited their too-often-witnessed porcelain pot traits away to capable European opponents. As soon as a crack appeared, they threatened to go to pieces.
Ntcham’s casual distribution, McGregor’s struggles to command possession and a defensive error from Boyata were all contributory factors in that, so the fringe players cannot shoulder the blame for a loss that reduces the prospects of progressing from their Europa League group to the slender bracket.
The world has shrunk in rapid order for Rodgers’ side. Only 13 months ago, they won a first away European group match in five years, slamming Anderlecht 3-0. In doing so, they set themselves up for a future in European football beyond their participation in a bruising Champions League group that contained Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich.
Now, on the back of sobering away defeats to Salzburg and Leipzig, their competitiveness in the continent’s second string tournament is being strained – even with three Group B fixtures still to be tackled. In a fortnight they host Leipzig, now with six points to their three. With Salzburg out of sight on nine points, to remain in the hunt for second place in their section, realistically they will need to post a 2-0 victory merely to cancel out the damage done by opponents who rested eight of their first choice XI last night. The narrowing of Celtic’s current focus could be evidenced even before a ball was kicked against one of the Red Bull works teams. Both within the club, and among its followers, there was a tangible sense of the Leipzig assignment being ranked beneath the Betfred Cup semi-final that will pit them against Hearts at Murrayfield on Sunday.
In boasting a £60 million wage bill and having hoovered up every domestic honour in the previous two seasons, prioritising a last-four game in Scotland’s most modest competition over a major confrontation on the continent could be considered strangely small-time.
Yet, you would struggle to find a Celtic supporter who wouldn’t have preferred to beat Hearts than Leipzig this week were they denied prospering in both. And if the order of the games had been reversed, Rodgers might well have attempted to patch up Rogic and Benkovic to bolster his quest to compete in a fifth straight domestic cup final.
“There are ways to lose a game of football but this isn’t one of them,” BT analyst Chris Sutton bemoaned as Celtic largely sleepwalked through the second half in Germany. Rodgers, though, knows that if they were to be caught napping at the weekend, the alarm it would set off would be far more piercing than any caused by another soporific showing on foreign soil.