Brendan Rodgers’ golden touch shines as Celtic rejoin elite

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers and Nir Bitton at full time in the 5-0 win over Astana. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNS
Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers and Nir Bitton at full time in the 5-0 win over Astana. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNS
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As one of the top-seeded clubs throughout the notionally favourable “Champions Route” of qualifiers, reaching the group stage of the Champions League is no more or less than is expected of a club of Celtic’s standing.

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Yet even if they are simply justifying their own Uefa coefficient ranking, the largely untroubled manner of their progress this season speaks volumes for Brendan Rodgers’ impact upon the Scottish champions.

Wednesday night’s 5-0 rout of Astana at Celtic Park in the first leg of the play-off round tie again illustrated the Midas touch which seems to characterise so much of the manager’s work with a group of players whose confidence in him seems absolute.

That faith in Rodgers is not always quite so unshakeable among a certain constituency of the club’s support, who shared the concerns also expressed by some high-profile pundits over the deployment of Nir Bitton in central defence for arguably the most significant 90 minutes of Celtic’s season.

The Israeli midfielder’s display at the heart of a solid back four against Astana made the doubters look foolish and hardened the impression that Rodgers is a manager currently at the peak of his powers.

The return of Dedryck Boyata from injury next month will undoubtedly strengthen Celtic at the back but Bitton has proved, just as Rodgers insisted he would, that he provides a reliable alternative for that key position.

“It is quite a new role for me but as soon as the gaffer gives me the shout to play there, I will do my best,” said Bitton.

“Wherever I play, I will try to help the team to win. I’m happy that we managed to do that on Wednesday night. It’s not just about me, I think we played an amazing game as a team and hopefully it will be enough for us.

“Maybe I didn’t show any nerves to the fans, but there was a little bit. These kind of matches are always nervy games. They are pressure games and you need to be at your best. I am just happy that we had a good game collectively.

“As I said, this was an amazing result and hopefully we can now be part of the Champions League this season.

“You try to adapt yourself to the new position. Of course, Jozo Simunovic, Mikael Lustig
and Kieran Tierney are trying to talk with me all the time in the back four because it is quite a new position for me.

“I watched some clips of the Astana striker in the days before the game and tried to understand his movement, where he wanted the ball. That helped. You just have to try to do your best. Hopefully what I did was enough. It is about Celtic as a team. When we defend well, everyone looks better.

“When the gaffer believes in you and gives you the confidence, then you want to show him that you deserve it. I got that confidence from him in the last few weeks and I am happy that we could keep a clean sheet and take a good result away from home and into the second leg next Tuesday.”

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What had been expected to be a daunting assignment in the Astana Arena should now be little more than a formality for Celtic. A 5-0 first-leg lead has never been overturned by any team in the 62-year history of European club competition football.

While their supporters can already start speculating on who they will be bracketed with when the group stage draw takes place in Monaco next Thursday, however, Bitton insists the Celtic players will remain fully focused on completing the immediate task at hand as impressively as possible.

“It is too early to talk about the group stage,” he added. “First, we need to get there. Secondly, if we get there we need to see the draw. But we have talked before that one of the things we want to achieve this season is to go to the Champions League. As soon as we get there then we need to take part and we want to go as far as we can.

“Just now, though, it is still too early. We need to go to Kazakhstan and play our best. Then we will see. I think everyone saw who was the better team in the first leg and 5-0 should be enough for us. The most important thing was to keep a clean sheet. Now we will try and get an away goal to really finish this tie off.

“After the third goal on Wednesday night, we really took control of the game. We pressed Astana well in the second half, took the possession and took them out of the game.

“I thought Leigh Griffiths had an amazing game, Scott Sinclair got two goals and James Forrest was great, too. It starts from the top. When you press them well and take the energy out of the other team, then you get a reward for that. I’m really happy that we managed to score five goals and kept a clean sheet.

“I’ve said before that we are much better team now, compared to 12 months ago. I won’t say much better individuals, but we are a much better team. We understand more what the gaffer wants from us, his philosophy and everything he is trying to do.”

The contribution of Olivier Ntcham was another eye-catching aspect of Celtic’s victory, the French midfielder steadily illustrating why Rodgers felt his £4.5 million summer capture from Manchester City would be a key factor in continuing the overall development of his team as a European force.

Encouragingly for Celtic supporters, Ntcham himself is quick to point out there is much more to come from him.

“For me, I think I can be better,” said the powerful and classy 21-year-old. “Maybe some of my passing could’ve been better. I had two or three balls I wasn’t happy with.

“But I thought it was the best performance of the team since I joined Celtic. It wasn’t easy, despite the result, but when you score at the times we did, the other team gets low on confidence. We can’t say this tie is over yet. It’s still only one game and I hope we’re going to win over there and that will be it.”

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