There is an age-old debate about what is more important, tactics or players (it’s tactics), but the argument is nuanced. Even a team that is tactically sound will be ineffective if passing is hesitant, wayward or clumsily controlled.
In Lille last night, Celtic’s passing was fast, precise and controlled, even in the tightest of spaces. Throughout the first half I shouted “Too tight” at the space we were passing into, only to be surprised on the upside. This allowed us to hold possession, move up field, get into the box and create chances. In this regard, the contrast with what we witnessed earlier this season was brilliantly stark.
Consider the performance of Callum McGregor on Sunday, who was a stand-out by the way he drilled the ball over the surface with laser precision. Last night, Callum put in a similar performance, but he looked no more than another cog in the wheel.
Throughout the game, Albian Ajeti held the ball up under the tightest supervision, turned and brought others into play. His early effort was correctly adjudged offside and he could have opened the scoring with a snatched chance midway through the first half.
Aside from his abilities on the ball, Diego Laxalt’s energy levels were outstanding. He was up and down the field from first to last, like the proverbial pinball, overloading in attack and rolling downhill into defence when required.
Central mid looked at its best, with Scott Brown doing what we know he can do so well and, before he tired early in the second period, Olivier Ntcham opening up play.
For a game in which we lost two goals, saved a penalty, Scott Bain made two other excellent saves and our crossbar was rattled, the defence played well. Ryan Christie switched off at the corner for the first goal, allowing an unmatched run at the back post. At this stage of the game the defence was under pressure but holding firm, Bain was seldom called upon and Lille looked frustrated. It is so important not to make it easy for your opponents.
The same observation could be made for the rash challenges in the first half (both outside the box, as it happens) that led to the penalty and the free kick Bain did so well to get a hand to. Last night was Celtic’s turn to pack their defence, making Lille very dependent on set pieces. To win games at this level, you need to be smart about what you concede.
The second Lille goal was one of those concessions that was not the result of a defensive mistake. We were in good positions when the first ball into the box, there then followed a miss-hit shot that fell to a second Lille striker, whose effort was deflected past Bain. C’est la vie.
With limbs and minds visibly tiring and an eye on the Scottish Cup semi-final, Neil Lennon indulged in a bit of showboating, closing the game out with the lesser spotted Ismaila Soro and Stephen Welsh among others. The substitutions helped stabilise Celtic for the closing period, when there were chances to win all three points.
On a night of fine Celtic performances across the field, there was only one Man of the Match contender. The finish for his second goal was technically more difficult than the jaw-dropping strike for his first. Much of the successful passing we discussed further up the page went through him and, having converted two more difficult chances, he will wonder what inhibited him from shooting inside the D to complete his hat-trick. It was an outstanding European performance. Moi Elyounoussi, très bien!