Celtic finally arrest Champions League run as domestic challenge awaits

14 December 2023 0 By Total Football News

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland chief sports writer

Celtic players celebrating

To say that Celtic have carried a monkey on their back in the Champions League this past 10 years is an understatement. It's not been a monkey, it's been monkeys - a veritable troop.

When you have not won a home game in this competition in a decade, when you are staring down the barrel of a second consecutive Champions League campaign without a victory, when time is all but up and you are drawing 1-1 with Feyenoord and hit the crossbar from distance then you can almost hear the tonal screams of the macaque moving in.

And then uproar and an unlikely hero in Gustaf Lagerbielke, an underwhelming summer signing. All that Celtic sound and fury chased the monkeys away. They had a good run, in fairness to them.

In one sense this was a meaningless game for Celtic and Feyenoord, the former out of Europe before a ball was kicked on Wednesday, the latter already through to the Europa League knockouts. In another sense, it was laden with meaning.

Celtic have been mocked for going so long without a win. A cessation was what they were looking for. A moment of feelgood in tricky times. A tangible confirmation that they can win and that they do belong at this level. If there was local joy at the last whistle then there was local relief, too, and local exhaustion. It was nervy and exciting in equal measure, way more than a supposed dead rubber ought to be.

Rodgers has been spared another post-mortem. His stats as Celtic manager in group and knockout football in European competition have been amended upwards - played 27, won six, lost 17, drawn four. A win percentage of 19% has climbed to 22%. Not the best, but better. This was a good night for Rodgers and his players, made sweeter by an impressive debut for 17-year-old Mitchel Frame.

Rodgers pleased to 'draw a line' under home record

Celtic's Champions League season feels like it's lasted a whole lot longer than it has. It's been a grind through self-inflicted defeat by way of red cards, more self-inflicted defeat by way of late lapses in concentration, a glimpse of the light in the 2-2 draw with Atletico Madrid before a plunge into the dark with the 6-0 that followed.

They landed four points, but it could have been more. They played six games and were only outclassed in one of them. And there are nuances to all of this. They had injuries to key players at various points - Cameron Carter-Vickers, the leader of their defence; Reo Hatate, their classy midfielder; Liel Abada, who contributed 28 goals and 20 assists in all competitions in his first two seasons at the club; Daizen Maeda, the wide man whose energy was so central to the success of the Ange Postecoglou years.

'Kyogo remains excellent, if out of sorts'

Abada and Maeda (and the departed Jota even more so) were critical to Kyogo Furuhashi. Without them, and with the tweaks Rodgers has introduced, the striker does not get the chances he has previously got and has not looked the same player he previously looked.

In two games against Feyenoord he had one shot on target. In two against Atletico he had one on target and scored from it. Against Lazio, he had three on target and scored once. Two goals from those five attempts is quite a return and begs the question of what he might do if the service improves. He remains an excellent, if out of sorts player.

These are important days for Celtic. Europe's gone but they salvaged something in the end. Now it's all about domestic football and kicking on in defence of their Scottish Premiership title in the face of a gathering challenge from across the city.

Celtic have a five-point lead at the top of the Premiership, but Rangers have a game in hand and there is the small matter of an Old Firm tussle on 30 December in the east end. That's part of why Wednesday night was so important to Celtic. It changed the narrative from the defeat by Kilmarnock last weekend, the points dropped against Motherwell, Hibs and St Johnstone earlier in the league and the growing feeling of Celtic drift.

Once again, in the post-match, Rodgers took the opportunity to remind everybody of his need for quality and not quantity in the January transfer window. Short of sticking a post-it note on his forehead, he could not be any clearer.

Gustaf Lagerbielke scores for Celtic against FeyenoordGustaf Lagerbielke headed Celtic's 91st-minute winner

He knows he has too many players at the club, some of them recruited in a summer spree that looked scattergun. You could comfortably remove seven, eight, nine players from this Celtic squad and nobody would really notice. Jota, with 28 goals and 26 assists, is a sore loss and has proven impossible to replace. The holy trinity of Jota-Kyogo-Abada/Maeda seems like a long time ago.

Yuki Kobayashi, Kwon Hyeok-kyu and James McCarthy have not featured this season. Marco Tilio has yet to start a game. Odin Holm, Tomoki Iwata and Oh Hyeon-gyu have only three starts each. Paulo Bernardo has just four. None have convinced and that's not even an exhaustive list.

Rodgers knows what he wants and probably knows who he wants. What he actually gets from his board in January will be fascinating to see. Celtic fans who are still exasperated about the summer recruitment will be on tenterhooks for every minute of next month.

Celtic finally got the win they were looking for on Wednesday night, a win that was a decade in the making, but building on it is the challenge now. Will they go forwards or backwards or just bob along in the hope of taking the title against a team with none of the financial reserves they have?

A question for January. In the here and now, Celtic have put a full stop on their winless run in Europe's elite competition. It's not enough, but it's something. To grateful Celtic fans, for a little while on Wednesday night, it might even have felt like everything.


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