Celtic ease past Rosenborg but AEK will pose tougher test

Scott Sinclair, centre, battles with Marius Lundemo, left, and Vegar Eggen Hedenstad of Rosenborg. Picture: Ole Martin Wold/NTB scanpix via AP
Scott Sinclair, centre, battles with Marius Lundemo, left, and Vegar Eggen Hedenstad of Rosenborg. Picture: Ole Martin Wold/NTB scanpix via AP
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Chalk it off and move on. That’s about the long and short of Celtic doing what was required of them in Trondheim last night in order to progress to a Champions League third-round qualifier against AEK Athens next week. The Greeks will pose a test of an altogether more exacting nature than anything offered by Rosenborg in the third step of four that Celtic must negotiate if they are to reach the Champions League group stages for a third year running.

All told, Brendan Rodgers might even see it as a minor triumph that little about the Norwegian leg of their second-round qualifier will live long in the memory. The home side were pumped up and pushed themselves to the limit in attempting to find ways to overturn a 3-1 first-leg deficit. Yet, praise for Celtic’s backline requires to be seen in the light of the fact that the home side failed to turn their territorial advantage into anything tangible. In the early stages, Rodgers’ men had the odd scatty moment but, mercifully for them, Rosenborg singularly lacked the incisiveness to capitalise. The mission in second-leg assignments is to ensure any advantages gained from the first one – in this case a decent cushion earned courtesy of a scintillating second half at Celtic Park – are not squandered. That never look like it would be the case, with Craig Gordon only required to make one crucial save when he tipped over a 45th-minute header from Marius Lundemo.

In that opening period, it appeared that Celtic might have been caught a little in two minds. Little was witnessed of them in attack and yet they exhibited an openness that betrayed the fact they certainly weren’t set up simply to soak up any pressure.

The Scottish champions were not placed under any sustained pressure but, equally, did not have any sustained possession in that opening half. It was notable that they breezed through the second period through succeeding in gaining a foothold higher up the pitch.

It can often be forgotten that in placing his faith in Kristoffer Ajer and Jack Hendry as a central-defensive pairing for both legs against Rosenborg, Rodgers relied on players only 20 and 23 years old respectively. Granted, he combined these two inexperienced defenders out of necessity, with their World Cup exertions ruling out Dedryck Boyata and Mikael Lustig, while Jozo Simunovic was suspended.

Ultimately, for all that Hendry had some uncertain moments in the first leg, the Scotland international and his Norwegian partner came through a tricky experience unscathed.

It is unlikely that they will be asked to repeat the trick when AEK come to Celtic Park next week. Rodgers will then have a decision to make about whether Boyata could be thrown into that pivotal encounter little more than a week after he returned for pre-season following his efforts in helping Belgium claim third place in the Russia finals. The 27-year-old’s leadership abilities and reputation-enhancing performances in the World Cup, allied to his experience at the highest level in Europe for Celtic previously, are likely to see Boyata pitched in.

This would have to be considered a strengthening of the Parkhead club’s hand, and they will need that hand strengthened. Lustig and Simunovic also will come into contention, while Leigh Griffiths might be fit enough to be considered, while Moussa Dembele is likely to remain sidelined.

AEK represent the most dangerous side to have been paired with Celtic in the qualifiers since Rodgers took charge in the summer of 2016. It will be a case of all hands to the pumps and, in that respect, it must be hoped that the knock which forced Kieran Tierney off in the closing stages won’t prevent his participation next week.

It cannot be overstated that for all Celtic did more than enough over two legs against Rosenborg, they will need to do considerably more against the Greek title-holders.