Celtic have booked their place in Friday’s UEFA Champions League Play-off draw after grinding out the clean sheet which was required in Baku following last Wednesday’s 1-0 victory over Qarabag. The second leg in Azerbaijan presented a number of difficulties for the Celts – namely distance, heat and a dodgy pitch – and therefore the sole objective was to progress. Mission accomplished and we can now look forward to Friday’s draw.
On the night, Celtic defended well and remained disciplined, which due to the heat, must’ve became gradually more difficult as the game went on. A good Craig Gordon save from an Almeida shot from 20 yards or so was the closest Qarabag came to cutting Celtic open, a testament to the Hoops defence display. The much debated pitch was detrimental to both teams’ approach however probably more so to the home side who were unable translate their possession into any real free flowing passages of play. For Celtic though, scarce openings to hit Qarabag on the counter were scuppered by heavy final touches and over-hit passes. On a few occasions Celtic broke forward in promising transitions only to be let down by a sloppy pass, Mackay-Steven guilty in the first half and Bitton could’ve played Griffiths in with minutes to go but overcooked his through ball. These are all insignificant now of course but going forward in the Champions League we have to be much more incisive in the final third if we are going to compete with the best sides in Europe.
The biggest positive was undoubtedly the collective effort of the whole team in keeping concentration and shape across the 180-minute tie. However, there were some noteworthy individual performances too. Nir Bitton broke up any Qarabag momentum brilliantly and showed on several occasions a flawless touch an unerring calmness on the ball. Those two things made a huge difference at times tonight when you just felt the game was becoming a little frantic. Virgil van Dijk was very good positionally, which is imperative while Dedryck Boyata finds his bearings in the Celtic defence. The much- maligned Izaguirre also had numerous important interceptions back in his berth at left-back, even if his decision making and final ball remains lacking. Scott Brown did what Scott Brown does, and we needed it.
As aforementioned, the biggest improvement is needed in the final third. Nadir Ciftci was again given the nod ahead of Leigh Griffiths again which I expect to remain the same, at least as long as Ciftci serves his domestic ban. Ciftci will come good. There seems to be a lot of hostility already based on the fact he hasn’t scored yet. In fact, I seen a Twitter post that it had been 203 minutes over 3 games without a goal or an assist – that will have increased tonight. Solely because he isn’t banging goals in left, right and centre or laying them on (yet) doesn’t mean he should be disregarded. Playing upfront in these ties is a thankless task, especially on your own. He is a work-in-progress and he needs patience. Stefan Johansen was tenacious as ever but like the rest of the team his touch and final ball seemed way off and he should’ve collected himself to convert his chance in the latter stages of the second half instead of blasting wide. James Forrest should also have done better with his opening as the game progressed and Qarabag left themselves wide open. However, all that matters is that the Celts are through. We are seeded for Friday’s draw and this hopefully means we end up with a less tricky set of circumstances this time around. Having said that, there are no easy ties now and if we want to compete in the Group Stages we have to be capable ofbeating anyone that lies in wait on Friday.
The Champions League dream is alive.
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