So last night was, erm, entertaining…
At 5-0 up going into the second leg nobody considered Astana to have a chance of qualifying for the group stage of the Champions League; including the Astana players going by the opening period of the game.
Celtic looked comfortable in possession and created plenty of chances in the early stages, whilst Astana sat off and surrendered possession as soon as they won it back. It was in stark contrast to the first leg, where Astana pressured Celtic high up the pitch and made life very uncomfortable for the first half an hour at Paradise.
Yesterday a deflected strike put Astana 1-0 in front on the night, although at 5-1 down overall it couldn’t really be classified as a lifeline. Soon afterwards Scott Sinclair curled in a delightful equaliser to further confirm the tie. Or so we all thought.
The second half began and within 5 minutes we were in complete panic. Astana scored twice inside 2 minutes and the makeshift defence, as well as Scott Brown, who had dominated the first leg and the first half, looked utterly lost.
With Astana still requiring 4 goals to qualify it was disappointing to see the team lose their composure as they did; although the pressure on the players in these games is something I can only dream of imagining.
By the 70th minute it was 4-1 on the night and this was no longer a laughing matter. The thought of horror headlines regarding our most embarrassing defeat ever, and Europe’s most famous comeback began to creep into the imagination.
Fortunately, we are a vastly improved side on previous years, unrecognisable in some respects. Whilst we did crumble under the pressure for a period in the second half, when it really mattered the players reassured themselves and pushed on to put the tie beyond any doubt once and for all.
In Olivier Ntcham we appear to have a truly gifted player. His quick footwork, spatial awareness, power, and ability to find a pass are being demonstrated more and more each game. Ntcham’s goal on the 80th minute calmed everyone down, and finally knocked the stuffing out of the Astana players.
Leigh Griffiths’ finish in the 90th minute made amends for his earlier miss seconds before Astana fired in their 4th and made the scoreline on the night more respectable, and perhaps a truer reflection on a night were Celtic dominated the match but were severely punished for a shocking 25 minute spell.
Ultimately we could have pulled it back to a draw, and a 4-goal aggregate victory is a tremendous outcome for a Champions League play-off tie. The only disappointments come in our unbeaten run in all competitions ending; and how the players lost their way early in the second half, at times it really did appear that we were hanging on.
But, under Brendan Rodgers this Celtic side has learned from their mistakes at a phenomenal rate. The unbeaten run may have ended, but these players are used to winning, and certainly won’t have welcomed the taste of defeat. The mentality that drove us on to an invincible treble remains, the squad will be further strengthened, and we will once again be enjoying Europe’s elite competition in Paradise.
The good times just keep on coming. This is how it feels to be in the Champions League…