‘Different movie, same ending for profligate Celtic’


Ange Postecoglou watched his Celtic side spurn a glut of chances against RB Leipzig

If this game matched the mood, then Celtic would have beaten RB Leipzig with ease.

In the beginning the din was ear-splittingly noisy and then deafeningly quiet as the whole place fell silent in remembrance of the fatalities in the desperate tragedy in Creeslough. Hugely passionate and deeply poignant. It was powerful at Celtic Park on Tuesday.

This was a terrific contest, a Champions League barnstormer, a game that swung one way then the other with chances flowing and a gathering incredulity on the faces of all those watching that it was goalless for so long.

A gathering angst, too. Celtic folk have been in this movie before in Europe. They were in it last week in Leipzig, they were in it in Poland against Shakhtar Donetsk and in it against Real Madrid in Glasgow. Chances created and chances missed.

The longer it went on Tuesday, the more the feeling grew that Celtic were going to pay a price for it. As Leipzig’s threat grew, they may as well have played the threatening music from Jaws over the PA system.

Something foreboding was about to happen to the home team. Most people could sense it.

Timo Werner and Emil Forsberg were the sharks in this story, two excellent finishes, three points and a continuation of Celtic’s long, long wait for a home group stage win in this competition.

It’s been nine years. It might be nine more if they don’t learn how to capitalise on their best stuff by scoring the goals they need to score.

From the first minute, when Daizen Maeda found himself in space in front of Leipzig’s goal but couldn’t find their net with his header, the rhythm of the night was set. Truth be told, it’s been the rhythm of Celtic’s Champions League season. Profligacy is what’s costing them.

In their three games before this one, Celtic had registered 15 shots on target and had just two goals to show for it. Their opponents – Real, Shakhtar and Leipzig – had a combined total of 14 with seven goals.

Champions League football is unforgiving terrain. You miss your opportunities and you suffer – and suffer Celtic did. For all that this stadium is electrifying on nights like this, when the elite teams come, they usually win.

Again, Celtic took a lot from the game. Some of their play was superb, some of their chances were outstanding. They had a real pop at Leipzig, played with ambition but got done by quality and nous, experience and ruthlessness.

After Maeda’s miss, Matt O’Riley hit the woodwork, Greg Taylor followed up in the next breath and hit the woodwork, too.

Soon after, Sead Haksabanovic dinked a gorgeous ball into Kyogo Furuhashi running free in the Leipzig penalty area. This was the critical moment. The Kyogo of last season would have buried it. The Kyogo of August would surely have scored, too. The Kyogo of recent times hasn’t been banging them in like before and here he put it over.

Both sides had chances when they were still locked at 0-0. The difference is that Leipzig won’t care a jot about the ones they didn’t convert. Maeda had an opening when it was still a draw, Georgios Giakoumakis had a chance at 1-0. So many moments, so much wastefulness.

Celtic have lost three games out of four but despite their position at the bottom of the table, the margins are fairly fine. Now that they are officially out of the Champions League they’ll have a world of regrets and what ifs, a lengthy reel of good goal-scoring opportunities spurned.

Postecoglou sticks to his principles

Celtic are learning big lessons. What made Tuesday even harder for them was the loss of Callum McGregor, their captain and totem.

Two questions dominated the preamble – would Jota be fit enough to start and, in absence of the talisman McGregor, which one of his defensive midfielders would Postecoglou turn to.

The answer was none of them. No Oliver Abildgaard, no Aaron Mooy, no James McCarthy. Instead, the Celtic manager doubled down on his attacking philosophy, played two creative midfielders as his protective buffers, played three more attacking midfielders ahead of them with Kyogo up top.

It was the most Postecoglou of selections. Not so much parking the bus as jumping on the accelerator and seeing what the bus could do.

Since going into their shell at 1-1 with Leipzig last week, Postecoglou has spoken with a preacher’s zeal about the need to see bravery from his players, to see them shake themselves free of what he called the self-preservation they displayed when it was level in Germany.

Having these beliefs in the Premiership, when you hold most of the aces, is easy enough, but carrying them into the Champions League against a team with the weapons that Leipzig possess is quite another.

Putting out such an offensively minded team was a high-wire act from Postecoglou, but it was the manager being true to his principles.

He has no interest in defending his way to a result, no truck with scraping a point or an ugly 1-0 by playing like mad dogs in a meathouse. That’s not what he would call progress.

There’s a huge inherent risk in how Postecoglou sets up his team in this tournament, but he’s prepared to take it in pursuit of the reward.

Again, the philosophy didn’t produce the victory, but he’ll take that on the chin if it means his players mature in the brutal reality of the Champions League, if they grow on the back of what they are experiencing, if they score when they need to.

They have two games left to secure European football after Christmas, at home to Shakhtar and away to Real. It doesn’t get any easier. It’s the Champions League. It’s not supposed to.

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