BRENDAN RODGERS watched TWO Celtic teams come back from 2-0 down to gain a praiseworthy draw in Slovenia tonight.
The new Hoops boss fielded two entirely different sides in each half as he continued to work on the match fitness of his players.
In the end, he would no doubt have been satisfied with a good work-out in testing conditions.
Danish international central defender Erik Sviatchenko had the honour of being named the skipper of Rodgers’ first game in charge of the Hoops.
Scott Brown wasn’t risked after picking up a slight injury in training and deputy Mikael Lustig was on extended leave after being involvd with Sweden in the Euro Finals.
With Jozo Simunovic and Dedryck Boyata injured, new Bhoy Kristoffer Ajer, normally a midfielder, partnered Sviatchenko in the middle of the rearguard.
Darnell Fisher, who spent last season loan at St Johnstone, was also given the opportunity to impress the new boss at right-back.
And it was the defennder who set up the best of the early chances in the eighth minute when he picked out Ryan Christie with a cute lob into the penalty area.
The youngster, bought a year ago for £500,000 from Inverness Caley Thistle, was completely unmarked, but rushed his header and sent the ball sailing harmlessly off target from eight yards.
Leigh Griffiths, last season’s 40-goal hero, was again the lone striker and, despite the heat in Slovenia, raced around menacingly as he refused to give the Celje defence a moment’s peace.
In the 25th minute, though, Craig Gordon had to look alert as he dived to his right to repel a netbound effort after a rebound found a Slovenian attacker unguarded in the box.
Three minutes later, Celje took the lead after a well-worked right-wing corner-kick that took a static Hoops defence by surprise.
The low ball picked out the unmarked Daniel Miskic and he didn’t hesitate in firing the ball goalwards from 12 yards. Gordon made a gallant effort and got his right hand to the effort, but he couldn’t prevent it flying into the net.
Despite some intense pre-season training at Lennoxtown last week, there were still some obvious signs of rust in the limbs of the Celtic players. Only game-time is going to solve that particular problem.
A well-driven pass from Nir Bitton was flicked on by Christie, but a Slovenian defender intervened just in time as Fisher raced in as Celtic responded.
James Forrest was then sent tumbling inside the box following a clumsy challenge, but the referee wasn’t impressed and waved play on.
Fisher, on the right, and Kieran Tierney, on the opposite flank, were given the go-ahead to bomb forward on the flanks with Bitton filtering back to link up with Sviatchenko and Ajer in the middle of defence.
The first-half ended with the champions failing to get a shot on target, but the main thing was to gain fitness and Rodgers would have been content with that aspect.
The Irishman sent out an entirely new line-up for the second-half and, within three minutes, they were two goals down.
Celje were awarded a free-kick 25 yards out and skipper Miskic, scorer of the first goal, swept in a right-foot effort that took a nick off Stuart Armstrong’s head before flying into Leo Fasan’s top left-hand corner of the net.
Just 60 seconds earlier, the Hoops almost levelled when Jamie McCart leapt to zip in a header from a Patrick Roberts right-wing corner-kick, but the ball swept just too high.
A couple of minutes after the second goal, Armstrong let fly from long range, but his effort edged just wide of the keeper’s right-hand post.
In the 56th minute Nadir Ciftci scored the first Celtic goal of Rodgers’ reign after some neat work on the left from Armstrong.
He tricked his way into the box before clipping over a cross and Ciftci, returning from his loan spell in Turkey, was lurking smack in front of goal and he thumped a header into the inviting net.
Tom Rogic was the man who got the leveller after running onto an Armstrong pass, moving away from a defender and chipping the ball over the keeper from an angle.
Jamie Lindsay came on for Saidy Janko a couple of minutes from time after the Swiss Under-21 international was on the receiving end of a reckless challenge from an over-zealous opponent.
At the end of the confrontation, Rodgers would have been happy with the battling qualities of his players who refused to accept defeat even in a game designed merely to help gain fitness.
FIRST-HALF TEAM: Gordon; Fisher, Sviatchenko, Ajer, Tierney; Johansen, Bitton; Christie, Allan, Forrest; Griffiths.
SECOND-HALF CELTS: Fasan; Ralston, O’Connell, McCart, Janko (sub: Lindsay 88); Rogic, Henderson; Griffiths, Armstrong, Roberts; Ciftci.
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