Craig Fowler gives his take as Celtic are eliminated from the Europa League by Russian side Zenit St Petersburg
CELTIC JUST COULDN’T COMPETE - AGAIN
Before we get to tactics or crucial moments in the match, we need to cover the blunt truth. There were too many players who had poor games. Too many bad touches, too much hesitation in possession and not enough quality to hurt the hosts.
It’s often been lamented that this team can’t do it back to back in Europe. That’s because, plainly, brutally, they’re not good enough.
The first leg was the exception, not the rule. The Celtic Park crowd and a tactical curveball from Brendan Rodgers, not to mention Zenit’s rustiness in competitive football due to their winter break, created the perfect storm in which Celtic would thrive. Out of their comfort zone, their shortcomings were so easily exposed by an opponent who, let’s face it, were no great shakes themselves.
ZENIT HAD MISSED IVANOVIC - JUST NOT IN THE WAY WE THOUGHT
The veteran defender came back into the fold after missing the first leg with an eye injury. While his presence at Celtic Park may not have done too much to affect the flow of the game, as Celtic’s hounding of the midfield was key to the 1-0 triumph, he at least would have added some steel to the defence while providing leadership to his less experienced team-mates, who wilted under the pressure in Glasgow.
Judging by the second leg, he may also have bolstered his side at the other end of the park. Not only did the ex-Chelsea star rise high to power home the crucial opening goal, he later popped at the edge of the penalty area to fire in the cross that would kill the tie .
IT WAS A MISTAKE TO STICK WITH THE SAME FORMATION
You can understand the reasoning. The players had performed so excellently in that system in the first leg, so Rodgers thought it only right to give them the chance to do so again. Unfortunately, Zenit were ready for it this time.
Instead of lining up in a 4-3-3, as expected, the home side opted for a narrow 4-4-2. With two wide men for the away wing-backs to cover, it often left space for the hosts’ full-backs to push far up the park, which aided in the scoring of all three goals.
We’ve already covered Ivanovic’s part in proceedings, but we’ve yet to mention left-back Domenico Criscito. His presence in attack helped make the first by creating space for Leandro Paredes to force a corner with a curling shot.
At the second, Scott Brown was forced to move over to help cover as Criscito’s free-kick found his left-wing partner Daler Kuzyayev. When the Russia eluded the captain’s challenge there was no one else to cover the space in front of the defence and he was allowed to get off a shot that de Vries would fail to deal with.
THEY MISSED THE CELTIC PARK CROWD
This seems obvious to point out, but it was evident in the way the visitors played in comparison to their first leg. Anyone in football will tell you, 60,000 people roaring encouragement stretches the limits of a player’s physical endurance to levels they never before thought possible.
Focusing just on the performance of Callum McGregor and Eboue Kouassi in the centre of the park, you could tell the affect the different environment had on them. Kouassi is not the finished article and McGregor may never quite possess the flawless technique required to be an elite attacking midfielder at the European level, but they imposed themselves on the first game with tremendous energy, putting themselves about to such a degree you would have been forgiven for thinking Rodgers had perfected human cloning. In the second leg? Well, McGregor was only saved from a half-time hooking before Koussai had been even worse. As for Olivier Ntcham, where he was sharp and precise in the home leg, he was dithering and sloppy in this one.
Overall there wasn’t the same urgency either in or out of possession. Zenit got their early goals and then they basically let their opponents have the ball, safe in the knowledge there was very little chance they’d do something with it.
IT COMES BACK TO RECRUITMENT
Dorus de Vries had a shocker. Not only did the keeper make a complete mess of the second, he could have done a lot better at the first. Paredes shot wasn’t hit with much pace and if he’d moved his feet quicker he could have smothered it, rather than pushing it out for a corner.
Asides from a good performance in a 1-0 win at home to Dundee earlier this season, de Vries has never looked comfortable as a Celtic goalkeeper. And yet, he was given a new deal to remain at the club until the end of next season. Even when Craig Gordon went down, the club didn’t try to recruit another No.1, as they had done when de Vries was first brought in. Instead they went for sticking plaster Scott Bain as back-up, a man who’d fallen down the pecking order at Dundee. Yes, fair enough, he did fall out with Neil McCann and that was part of the reason for his first-team exodus, but the Dens Park patrons weren’t overly upset to see him jettisoned.
Then there’s the centre-back situation and the plummeting form of Mikael Lustig, who also had a shocker. They are all things that could have been addressed and weren’t to a satisfactory degree. Now, it’s foolish to expect the club to spend £10million on individual players, but they can still be attracting a higher calibre of ready-made player than they have been to compete on the continent.