Apart from the six hour flight, the five hour time difference, the 35 degree heat, and the plastic pitch with no water, it should be alright. It’s what’s thrown at us and we just need to adjust and prepare ourselves as best we can. We have to find a way to get a performance and a result.
Despite the issues raised by Rodgers and having to travel over 3,000 miles to play a team half way through their domestic season, the Celtic manager was in no mood to offer his team excuses for failing to get a result in Kazakhstan during a pre-match interview.
Only a few months into his new job, Rodgers has already won the fans over with his positive, winning mentality, and flexible tactical approach so often highlighted as a negative in his predecessor Ronny Deila who rigidly stuck to 4-3-3. Celtic’s experimentation with formations during the pre-season has given the team a few new options, making them a more unpredictable and proposition than before. So much so that he has invented a new tactical set up playing with 3 and a half defenders – a fluid line up that allows the holding midfielder to drop deep and become an extra defender when needed – or at least that’s how he described it when questioned by the BBC whether his team lined up with three or four at the back in the recent friendly with Wolfsburg.
Going into the Astana game Celtic’s defensive frailties were clear for all to see with Efe Ambrose the only fit senior centre half to make the journey; Sviatchenko, Simunovic, Boyata, and Ajer all injured, Toure not registered, and Eoghan O’Connell – who was registered – having played less than ten games for the club. But still, Rodgers offered no excuses pre-match.
“We have to find a way to get a performance and a result”
Celtic’s away record in Europe hardly inspires confidence, you only need cast your mind back two weeks to the Shock in Gibraltar, therefore getting a result in Astana would be no mean feat. A 1-0 defeat may even have counted as a good result.
As it unfolded, Rodgers tactical nous ensured that Celtic played an extremely controlled and mature game, ending up walking away with a highly credible 1-1 draw and an all important away goal.
Rodgers opted for the “three and half” at the back formation with Brown filling in as a fourth defender when needed, or as third to allow Kieran Tierney to bomb on down the left flank. I have often been critical of Scott Brown but he showed a great level of discipline to perform the role admirably while curtailing his headless chicken like desire to run forward at every opportunity.
Patrick Roberts, on the right, was constant threat to the Astana rearguard and had the beating of left back Shomko, while Eoghan O’Connell was simply immense in defence. The young Irishman winning almost every tackle and header he went for and showed great reading of the game.
Of course, no Celtic away game in Europe is ever plane sailing. After a promising opening quarter of an hour where Celtic looked to be on top the hosts broke forward and won a corner. Celtic’s defending at corners was so often their downfall last season and so it again proved as Logvinenko was allowed to run and leap unmarked before heading past Craig Gordon who had come off his line but was nowhere near claiming the cross. Same old same old. A few minutes later Astana won another corner, however, this time the Celtic defence had learnt their lesson and easily dealt with the delivery; a major sign of improvement on last season already. The goal had however clearly dented the confidence of the Celtic players with simple mistakes beginning to creep into their play allowing Astana’s speedy attack to trouble the defence, however, one Efe Ambrose error aside, they repelled everything that came their way, providing a solid backbone from which to build.
Second half, Celtic were largely the better team, dominating a lot of possession without really threatening the Astana goal, but still making avoidable errors and letting their hosts in. Had it not been for Tierney, O’Connell, and Gordon Astana could have made them pay heavily.
As it was Celtic grew in confidence as the game wore on. Rodgers replaced the ineffectual Dembele with Bitton, the Frenchman struggling to make an impact while the Israeli immediately began dictating the play in midfield. This also removed Brown from his defensive duties to a degree, allowing him to support the attack more frequently.
Forrest was next to come on replacing Armstrong on the left and taking some of the attacking responsibility off Roberts, who by now was being marked by three Astana defenders every time he received the ball. Celtic had weathered a storm and were now taking control of the game, a goal seemed only a matter of time away. It duly arrived on the 78th minute when Roberts refused to let the Astana defence usher the ball out for a goal kick, he kept the ball in play and cut in back for Leigh Griffiths who took it in his stride before slamming past the Astana keeper.
Celtic’s patience and Rodgers tactical approach had paid off. 1-1 in Kazakhstan against a side who had held the likes of Atletico Madrid to draws at the same venue last season is a very credible result. It also sets the return leg up nicely at Celtic Park next Wednesday where a victory of any kind will see the hoops progress to next qualifying round.
I’m sure Brendan is already working on a tactical masterplan to make this happen.