In the absence of a lopsided scoreline, an out-of-regular-season challenge match will always be declared as a “good exercise” by those involved. Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers didn’t disappoint in the post-match assessment of his meeting with Leicester City on Saturday evening.
Yet, there are reasons to concur with the Irishman. In turn, a degree of cautious optimism could be applied to how the weekend events in Glasgow might impact on the monumental third qualifying round Champions League first leg the club will undertake against FC Astana in Kazakhstan on Wednesday.
I can only dream of what it would be like on a Champions League night at Celtic Park. It would be great if we could play them this seasonMarc Albrighton
The International Champions Cup encounter – that doubled up as a Scotland v England title winners’ Charity Shield – was nominally competitive. Note the nominally. Whatever window dressing was applied by the tournament’s US organisers, this remained a quasi-friendly. Within those terms, though, there were points of interest.
Chief among these in a Celtic context was Rodgers playing a back three for the second successive game – with the 3-5-2 formation giving Celtic a recognisable shape in the progress-earning 3-0 second-round qualifier win over semi-professional Maltese side Lincoln Red Imps in Glasgow four days earlier.
Even with Jamie Vardy unavailable, the history-making Premier League winners had a formidable attacking presence. Riyad Mahrez, with his balletic grace and finesse, provides a team’s worth in a single, striking package. He netted with a curling effort of brilliant craft two minutes after the restart, and opened up the home defence on several occasions, but Celtic’s backline never looked overwhelmed by their tasks.
That is all the more credible in light of the fact that Erik Sviatchenko and Kieran Tierney were rested from Wednesday’s back three. The conviction demonstrated by Eoghan O’Connell and Saidy Janko will have heartened Rodgers, with new arrival Kolo Toure not being considered for tomorrow’s trip to central Asia. They were given the platform to flourish by the superb marshalling of Mikael Lustig as the experienced performer at the core of the backline.
Without Toure, Rodgers now has possibilities for the Astana tie that seemed denied him with injuries to Jozo Simunovic and Dedryck Boyata and the frailties of Efe Ambrose. O’Connell’s efforts on Saturday were framed by the 20-yard strike he provided in riposte to Mahrez’s opener but Rodgers was right to focus more on the instinctive assurance he exhibited.
“He is a young player who has a good idea of the game. I have been really impressed by his understanding of the game,” he said.
Were the 20-year-old to have played his way into contention, it would allow Rodgers to field the Irish youngster alongside Lustig and Sviatchenko, and therefore have his wingbacks as defensive types, such as Tierney, where last week he rightly opted for wingers in Patrick Roberts and James Forrest.
A knockabout contest, the unremarkable 32,658 crowd was engaged come the penalty shoot climax to decide the destination of a bonus point in a tournament that no-one is quite sure about the workings of – beyond that it ensures some glamour summer fixtures involving such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich, PSG and Internazionale at various locations across the globe.
For Celtic, Nadir Ciftci, Stefan Johansen, Scott Allan, O’Connell and Ryan Christie scored, before James Forrest had his kick blocked by Kasper Schmeichel. Christian Fuchs, Marcin Wasilewski, Danny Drinkwater, Ben Chilwell and Shinji Okazaki had all scored for the visitors before Daniel Amartey’s success with the sixth secured the “win”.
One of the integral performers in a title triumph that a club such as Leicester were supposed to be incapable of securing was Marc Albrighton. He seemed to be taken by Celtic Park and said all the right things about the outside chance the pair could meet again in the Champions League group stages.
“Celtic definitely gave us a good game. It was end to end and quite feisty at times,” he said. “That’s all good fun, though, and we enjoyed the game. It was different to the normal friendly in terms of the occasion and the battle. Last year, we played pre-season games against the likes of Mansfield so to come to Parkhead, we knew it would be a big occasion. As England v Scotland, we knew it was going to be something big.
“I have a few mates who have played at Celtic Park and are fans of the club. I have watched the Champions League nights on TV and they told me all about it in the lead-up to this game. They told me to savour the atmosphere and enjoy it. There was a moment in the second half when the Celtic fans were all doing the Poznan dance and it was amazing. You just had to look around the stadium and applaud the fans for the noise they were making.
“It’s fantastic to see and I can only dream of what it would be like on a Champions League night at Celtic Park. They have had a lot of big games in the past and it would be great if we could play them this season.
“I’d like to think Celtic do have enough quality to get through the qualifiers and make the Champions League. They are a massive club.
“We were up in Glasgow for a few days and we saw how big they are in this city. Even just training in the stadium on Friday night was special. You can see all the history and the tradition of the place and the fact they have kept that up over the years is to their credit.
“People are looking more at Celtic down south because Brendan [Rodgers] has taken over as manager. He has a fantastic record in the English Premier League and he has a great track record of doing well at clubs and bringing players through.”
Now Rodgers has to bring a group of players through Champions League qualifiers to avoid reputational damage.