It may well have been another two-goal defeat but there was something altogether more comforting watching Celtic’s 3-1 reverse to Italian giant AC Milan.
While Saturday’s Derby defeat felt like walking through driving wind and rain with clothes soaked to the skin, last night while blustery in places, had moments of warmth from the sun breaking through, there was hope of better conditions ahead.
What we didn’t get was the perfect performance of course but the Celtic support got hope from that second half showing in particular. Hope that the players have not downed tools, hope that the team hasn’t ran out of ideas and hope that the players and manager can respond and work together to do so. Hope we had all but lost, so disappointing was the application in the Derby on Saturday.
Celtic started strongly in possession and their passing and movement, particularly up against the Italian full backs, showed they didn’t fear their opposition and had been shown where the few weaknesses in a fine AC Milan lay.
Out of possession we looked lost at times – as we have so often this season – none more so in defending both goals. Much of that was down to players still being unsure of their defensive responsibilities and a back three that’s had more line-up changes in the last few weeks than Primal Scream in the last 20 years. In fact, I’m sure Bobby Gillespie would be willing to offer Lenny some advice on how to adapt.
And adapt Celtic did. 2-0 down at the break having been pushed and pulled around Celtic park like a toddler on a swing, Neil Lennon refused to be stubborn and switched to a back four for the second half as Stephen Welsh and Leigh Griffiths were sacrificed for Ryan Christie and Moi Elyounoussi.
The solidity was evident immediately and the attacking intent was fluid as the muscle memory of players relaxed into a system that fitted them like a glove. There was some excellent attacking play and whilst Milan weren’t passengers by any means Celtic created well, clawed a goal back and with it a foothold in the game through Elyounoussi. An equaliser would have been deserved.
It didn’t come of course. Instead Milan grabbed a third goal on the break as Celtic searched for that leveller and yes, we’ve seen that movie many times over the last couple of seasons but this time felt different. If Saturday was rock bottom, last night was the first step on the climb back to the surface.
It’s a strange feeling to witness Celtic lose 3-1 at home and feel a sense of anticipation for what could lie ahead. There were many positives, particularly in the second half. Though even in the first half Diego Laxalt and Albian Ajeti impressed.
In the second Moi Elyounoussi thrived out wide and the introduction of Tom Rogic showed there is a creative influence in the Celtic squad, a player who has the vision and execution to force the opposition onto the back foot. Ryan Christie, Moi and Callum McGregor immediately looked like they had a link man and one they could pass to under pressure, safe in the knowledge the ball was in good hands. Olivier Ntcham dropping deeper after Scott Brown’s substitution, rather than stuttering further forward, looked a different player. All positives and all something for Celtic to build on.
All we asked for from last night was an improved performance from Celtic, some fight, hunger and willingness to play at a tempo, upset the rhythm of a top-level outfit and impose our game on the opposition. We certainly got that. And while last night matters little to many, with the eyes fixed on ten-in-a-row, that game will impact on that too.
Aberdeen would have been rubbing their hands after Saturday’s defeat, last night will give them an altogether more concerning few days’ preparation. If Celtic can transfer that second half performance to Pittodrie on Sunday then the Dons could be in for a chasing.
For now, Celtic may not exactly be a side emerging from the storm into the light but there are certainly cracks appearing from the clouds. That’s all we really asked for, we were all aware it was a long road back from Saturday’s shambolic showing.
Come Sunday however Celtic cannot simply put in a performance and expect the plaudits. They need to return from the Granite City with three points, otherwise the fallout from last weekend will feel like a leisurely summer stroll.