Give me 8-4 before kick off last week and I would have bitten your hand off, now, somehow it seems like an anti-climactic qualification; one where from a position of great power we are now happy to have crawled over the finish line.
For long spells tonight Celtic were simply not at the races in what was an uncharacteristically all round poor team performance. However, upon reflection, after Scott Sinclair’s fabulous equalising goal the tie was never really in any doubt, honestly.
At 5-0 from the first leg Celtic were safe in the knowledge that an Away goal would end the tie stone dead leaving Astana needing to score 7 goals to qualify at Celtic’s expense; a fact a lot of people –myself included- forgot as the game wore on. Sinclair’s goal therefore effectively ended the game as any sort of a meaningful contest.
However, Sinclair’s goal and Celtic’s inability to defend in the second half also provided Astana with a platform to play with complete freedom and to attack at will. 6-1 down on aggregate Astana were a wounded animal playing for pride and without fear against a Celtic side who, understandably to certain degree, didn’t know whether to stick or twist. The result; 3 goals for Astana in a 20 minute spell that turned the game, but not the tie, on its head as Celtic still held a 6-4 lead with an Away goal. Astana were therefore left still needing to score another 3 goals in the final 20 minutes to go through, a feat that would prove to be beyond them.
In truth, the final 20 minutes played out exactly as expected with Astana, tails up and sensing that the comeback of comeback’s was on, pressed forward in search of more goals. Celtic’s defence finally kicked in enough to repel the pressure and Ntcham and Griffiths scored breakaway goals that helped bring an air of respectability back to the nights score line. But really, qualification was never in doubt after Sinclair’s goal.
Where the panic came from, in my opinion, was the ease with which Astana broke through the make shift defence – neither Bitton nor Ajer being regular starters at centre half – and the lack of anything positive to say about the midfield who were posted missing for almost the entire game; thus leading to not only a rare defeat but, until the late Ntcham and Griffiths goals, the possibility of an absolute hammering. The performance of Olivier Ntcham being a rare bright spot as the midfielder oozed class once again.
Tonight’s result and performance highlighted that while Rodgers has taken this team a very long way in a very short period of time, on the European stage at least there is still an awful lot of work that needs to be done.
Ajer looks like a top prospect at the back but the Bitton experiment is not really working out and, with Boyata and Sviatchenko out with medium term injuries and the latter likely to be sold if reports are correct, then there is a definite need to strengthen the defence in preparation for the Group Stages. Young South African defender Rivaldo Coetzee has reportedly signed on a 4 year deal however I have absolutely no idea what level we can expect from him and, personally speaking, I would prefer another defender in the ranks with top level experience to help shore up the back line on nights like this.
The midfield is also still in need of a player capable of doing the dirty work, grafting, ball winning and imposing themselves on the game. Scott Brown is good at doing this domestically but has been found wanting on too many big European occasions, tonight unfortunately being another. Ntcham has added class and guile to the midfield but a ‘water carrier’ type player alongside him would compliment his talents further.
It also goes without saying that another striker is needed if, for no other reason, than as a back up and alternative option to Griffiths and Dembele, when fit, and to relieve the constant goal scoring burden from them. The fiasco of the facing Rosenborg in the previous round without a striker is one that should be avoided in future and as such a third striker should be brought into the fold.
Thankfully it looks as though Paddy Roberts will be returning to Paradise on another loan deal to provide a further creative attacking option and add some real quality to the front line for the upcoming European campaign.
While it is unlikely that Celtic will reinforce in all areas outlined above we now at least 30 million reasons to think that there will be new additions to the squad before the transfer deadline as, after all, This is How it Feels to be in the Champions League.