Celtic 1 Qarabag 0
Phew!!!! We were deep into squeaky bum time when Boyata powered in the winner to give us a deserved lead to take to Azerbaijan next week.
This was not a vintage or exciting performance from the bhoys tonight but, at this stage, it’s all about the result. I remember Jock Stein, as manager of Scotland, saying that you have your overalls on for the qualifying games and this certainly applied tonight. It was a very workmanlike and disciplined performance where the team worked well for each other and Craig Gordon was never troubled. Given the importance of not conceding an away goal this was crucial and was undoubtedly part of Ronny’s game plan. Several players were slightly off form (Scott Brown unusually so) but nobody hid at any time and everybody kept their concentration throughout.
It is always a good sign to see our best players on the ball and tonight that meant Bitton. From about 10 mins onwards he was immense, breaking up moves and assured in possession. We should extend this guy’s contract now as he is pretty indispensable already!! In the first half we had little width with Izzy, in particular, holding back (on instruction?). As a result we seemed to continually try to pass the ball through the middle of the Qarabag defence but a combination of their organisation and our sloppiness led to a frustrating 45 mins. Ciftci did manage to ruffle them up a bit as hoped. He’s a strong player, is good technically and gives us an option up front that we didn’t have last season.
In the second half it was clear that both full backs had been told to be much more attacking and this improved our width, though not our crosses, so chances still weren’t coming. As the half wore on an expectant crowd turned it’s hopeful eyes to the bench hoping for a sight of Griffiths being changed. At last he came on and we could see that Ronny can be bold when necessary, taking off our man of the match and defensive midfielder Bitton. The pattern of play didn’t really change and Griffiths was finding it hard to make headway though he wasn’t exactly receiving much service either. Our one chance was a Virgil header from a set piece and this was a precursor to Boyata’s late header from Common’s corner. Common’s seemed fairly bright when he came on and I’d expect him to get more game time on Saturday.
We were not at our best tonight although the step up in class of the opposition probably contributed to that. Qarabag are a well organised team who can pass the ball well but they are not the world beaters described by some. They do, though, have a talent for histrionics and rolled about the ground clutching their face in a manner that I haven’t seen since we played Mourinho’s Porto in Seville. Their number 10, Dani, was a particular culprit and was forever moaning to the ref to try and get one of our players booked or sent off. If we don’t have a strong referee next week then he could be dangerous for all the wrong reasons! Whilst they pass the ball well, their defence was prone to panic on occasions and they are clearly uncomfortable at set pieces. This, plus the fact that they have to play more offensively next week, makes me feel that we can score a goal over there and that should (I know, I know) make the tie safe. It’s certainly not all over yet but I’m pretty content with the result and am hopeful that we’ll be in the play-offs.
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