Celtic will be in Friday’s draw for the Champions League play-off after defeating Rosenborg 1-0. Here’s Craig Fowler’s take on the match in Trondheim.
Brendan Rodgers was right to stick with his philosophy
The first leg had been alarming. Not only did Celtic fail to cut open Rosenborg, they were fortunate to see the visitors pass up a few good opportunities, including one gilt-edged chance, as the hosts struggle to deal with the absence of a natural striker. Suddenly the route to the group stages appeared quite treacherous.
The second leg was expected to be a different game. The Norwegians, used to dominating the ball in domestic football, would be urged forward by the crowd and Celtic could look to exploit on the counter-attack. Even if Leigh Griffiths didn’t regain fitness, a front three of James Forrest, Scott Sinclair and Jonny Hayes would possess enough pace to cause enough problems on their own while the rest of the team sat back.
Nope. Nope. Nope.
The opening period played out exactly like the first half in terms of the pattern of play. Celtic looked to retain possession, patiently probing the visitors, looking for an opening, while Rosenborg held a threat on the counter with Nicklas Bendtner playing the role of target man. The main difference being that Celtic created two or three really good chances before they took the lead, where as Rosenborg were limited to shots from distance.
It shows the confidence of Brendan Roders and his players. They refused by rattled by the first leg and went to Trondheim full of belief that, if they continued to play their game, they’d eventually get the required result.
Rosenborg played their hand too early
The home side came out at the start of the second half with real vigour and went for Celtic from the off. They were urgent in their pressing, pushing high up the park to force mistakes and attempt to capitalise on what they hoped would be uneasiness on the part of their opponents. But while Celtic looked a little rattled at the start, it didn’t take long for them to regain composure and rediscover an air of invincibility. Bendtner caused problems when he switched on to Nir Bitton, effectively linking play with the midfield, but with Scott Brown and Callum McGregor buzzing about, Celtic were always able to disrupt the attack and quell the immediate pressure.
Trying to force the issue in attack left them more vulnerable in defence as Celtic began to ask questions on the counter attack. The goal, while not exactly a classic counter itself, would likely not have occurred in the first half or in the game at Celtic Park. Sinclair would not have been given free reign to dart through the middle of the pitch, so crowded by Rosenborg’s five-man midfield for most of the tie, before feeding James Forrest on the right.
Rosenborg had the right gameplan. Frustrate Celtic, see if they make a mistake, then capitalise on when they do. Hindsight is a wonderful thing - well, not really, it’s actually quite useless - but the Norwegians may have been better off biding their time further.
The maddening play of James Forrest
Ok, so we knew about this character trait already, but the second half just epitomised Forrest and why Celtic fans continually pull their hair out when watching the winger.
The goal was something special. The pace, the power, the accuracy. The goalkeeper had absolutely no chance. It was a thunderbolt, simply unstoppable, and a deserving match-winner.
13 minutes later...
With confidence coursing through his veins, Forrest read a loose ball, intercepted and shot through on goal. He was one-on-one with the goalkeeper and had all the time in the world. Suddenly it all got too much for him. He looked completely unsure of himself. Stumbling and stuttering, he hesitantly tried to round the goalkeeper before having his effort blocked. Ironically, seeing as he appeared to want no part of this chance, he ignored/didn’t see Tom Rogic completely free to his left. The Australian would have had a tap in.
Leigh Griffiths continues to improve
The knock on Leigh Griffiths was that he was an excellent goalscorer, but when it came to playing away from home in Europe he just couldn’t cut it. The striker lacked the ability to hold up the ball and link play with the midfield, and therefore Celtic would be put under unbearable pressure from better teams.
It wasn’t an unjust criticism. You just have to look at Celtic’s struggles in Malmo and Beer-Sheva over the last couple of years to know that. It’s just that Griffiths has improved so much as a player, which he continues to do year on year with the Scottish champions.
His arrival in the 58th minute of Wednesday’s game helped swing the tie irrevocably in Celtic’s favour. Suddenly there was a focal point through the centre and it improved the visitor’s attack immeasurably. He held the ball up, made clever runs, and added a goalscoring menace that was lacking prior to his arrival.
It’ll be interesting to see if he can replicate this sort of performance if Celtic get to the group stages and come up against some real powerhouses of European football.
Reinforcements are required
Brendan Rodgers’ reasoning for not having a third striker on the books is understandable. You don’t want to have a player for the sake of it - they already have that in Nadir Ciftci - and it’s difficult to attract quality when you can’t guarantee them first-team football. However, Moussa Dembele has had his share of injury concerns - he’s basically been injured for most of 2017 - while Griffiths is no stranger to the occasional knock or niggle. Bringing in a player who could play in the No.9 role in addition to somewhere else in the side, like on the right wing, would add real value to the squad. The trouble now is trying to recruit such a player so Celtic have them in place for the Champions League play-off tie.
And while they’re out shopping, centre-back has suddenly become a problem position. Bitton filled in admirably after Erik Sviatchenko’s injury but you could still see his hesitancy in whether to stick tight to Bendtner when the striker dropped off, or keep the shape of the backline. He also has the tendency to switch off when he’s supposed to be tracking runners at the defensive midfield position, which probably won’t translate all that well to centre-back.
A new signing to partner the excellent Jozo Simunovic would go a long way in helping to confirm Celtic’s place in the group stages.