Well this game was exciting was it not? A good advert for Scottish football rather than the backs to the wall or ‘low block’ defending we normally see in the Scottish Premiership. It was certainly entertaining I’ll give you that. Both teams in the second half in particular produced a spectacle and both should be commended for it.
From a Celtic perspective let’s start with what we wanted from today’s game. More appetite, aggression, belief and at least some signs the players were still playing for the shirt and the manager. Well we got all of that. The incremental steps shown in the second half against Milan were built on once more, the performance was better than theRangers debacle and we looked like a team with an attacking identity again.
The manager realised that a 3-5-2 based on personnel available was not the way to continue and after a game changing introduction on Thursday Tom Rogic played from the start, set up two goals and lasted 84 highly influential minutes in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Ryan Christie came in and played well, Moi Elyounosssi also got himself involved, but influence things? Not so sure I’d stretch that far.
And talking of influencing things Albian Ajeti cut a lonely figure in attack. The half-time stats indicated the Celtic attacker hadn’t touched the ball in the opposition box. As a striker that’s somewhat concerning, you can lament the lack of service but given that a confident striker would take it upon himself to drop deep, carry the ball, link the play and force himself into the area. It was a worry that in a first half where Celtic controlled much of the possession our big summer signing was fairly ineffective. Perhaps the exertions of Thursday and returning from the hamstring injury was a step too far, yet questions could be asked.
In that first half Celtic controlled possession but did little with it. Both full backs had space to work in, both were wasteful in their deliveries and general decision making. If you don’t create or take chances you are liable to leave yourself open at the other end. And just before half time Olivier Ntcham, starting ahead of Scott Brown, had a brain freeze moment that led to a penalty. Was it debatable? Possibly 10 years ago, nowadays it’s a stonewaller.
It was both cumbersome and unnecessary. Ntcham only had to move himself goal side of his man and stand him up, and instead he staggered like a closing time drunk into Lewis Ferguson, who simply stood still expecting the impact and bought the penalty. He then despatched the kick, and from a promising position Celtic were a goal down at the break. It felt rather harsh to be a goal down at half time. Yet you felt if we stuck to the formation, personnel and just upped the tempo and precision a little we could turn it around.
Celtic did just that. The equaliser was a wonderful goal with Rogic, Christie and McGregor all linking well before the captain for the day finished superbly to level the game. Yet as soon as we had the ascendency, we shot ourselves in the foot again as Ryan Hedges took advantage of Celtic’s lack of confidence, indecision and inability to clear their lines – something that was to come back to haunt us again in the closing stages- to score again and lead 2-1.
Yet Celtic had fight in their bellies and a will to kick on and they did. Substitute Leigh Griffiths showed us what we’re missing from a professional footballer who simply cannot get himself in a position to play 90 minutes. His left foot finish into the top corner via another artistic input from Tom Rogic, was a an off the seat moment- well armchair at least-, the kind of goal you’d pay to watch if only you were allowed to. Then before we knew it Celtic were 3-2 up as Ryan Christie slotted home a penalty, as Ajer’s cross saw Aberdeen defender Hoban look out of position as Elyounoussi stole in and was fouled.
So now it was down to the defence to see if the incremental steps of improvement could be transferred from attack to defence. Sadly, the truth is the confidence at the back may take a little more time to rebuild, it has after all been more damaged of late.
By the time Callum McGregor fouled Scott Wright after the advantage had been played by Willie Collum long enough for substitute Sam Cosgrove to strike the underside of the bar Celtic had more than enough opportunity to clear their lines. It was a certain penalty and indicative of a referee who got most of the big decisions correct while being infuriatingly inconsistent with the minor decisions throughout.
A draw to be honest was probably the fair result yet when Celtic come back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits to lead 3-2 with 12 minutes to play, you’d expect a confident side could see the game out. Yet defensively we are not confident. Out of possession this team has been questionable sine the first game of the season and it may take time to add the defensive stability to the attacking intent the team evidenced today. That will come, it’s easier to coach that than how to put the ball in the net and with practice and enough competition for defensive positions to return and threaten the places of the current incumbents, it will happen sooner than later.
What was pleasing today was this team still wants to get involved, impact games and play for their manager, eight days ago I wasn’t quite so sure of that. Now I’m satisfied we’re on the road to recovery.
Next week we’ll face the same opponent in the Scottish Cup semi-final. If lessons are being learned and genuine improvements made, we’ll see just how far we’ve come in that game. Today? Well late goals can skew your opinion. I thought Celtic did us proud, it’s just a shame we couldn’t quite hang on long enough for a confidence building win.