Celtic opened last night’s Champions League encounter with Real Madrid with a torrent of attacking play. The same incisive passing that extended their league lead on Saturday came close to subverting the European champions. As it was, Real held firm, although even manager Carolo Ancelotti had to admit they were “lucky” not to go behind when Callum McGregor’s strike came off the inside of the post.
Leil Abada had two half chances in the opening period. The first, when Giorgos Giakoumakis rolled a pass back into his path; the shot went narrowly past the post. The Greek striker seemed to have time to turn and shoot from a closer range.
Abada’s second chance came courtesy of an immense ranging pass from Jota. The Israeli winger hit a weak effort from the edge of the area straight at Courtois, however, I don’t think he had any better option available.
Giakoumakis again became provider when he (again) rolled the ball back, this time to McGregor. When his shot failed to find the net by inches, it is fair to say Real were reeling.
Injured Karim Benzema was replaced by Eden Hazard, the latter missed Real’s best chance of the opening period, sending a shot wide with the goal gaping. Vinicius Jr was allowed to run through and force an excellent save from Joe Hart, although with the player a clear two yards offside, VAR would have intervened if the need arose.
Celtic’s best chance of the night arrived shortly after halftime when substitute Daizen Maeda failed to make a clean connection with a thundered Josip Juranovic cross. Goals change games and had that chance gone in, Celtic would have had a lead to defend, but it was not to be. I remember looking at the clock on 55 minutes and knowing several Celtic players were tiring. Real scored twice within 5 minutes and ended the game as a contest. The dream ended that quickly. Valverde got free on the right and swept the ball across the face of goal for Vinicius to finish.
Moments later, Luka Modric got the break of the ball 12 yards from goal. Hart got a hand to his shot but could not keep it out. The keeper did not move his feet as Modric shifted to his left and could perhaps have done better.
The third goal was the pick of the bunch. Toni Kroos crossed to Celtic’s left where Greg Taylor was left to mark both Dabi Carvajal and Hazard. The former passed inside for the latter to complete the scoring.
I doubt even the most optimistic of us thought Celtic had a first half of that quality in them. It is no exaggeration to say that, at times during the opening period, Celtic were more on top than they were in the local derby on Saturday.
The progress clearly visible in Greg Taylor’s game beggars belief. A player who looked nervous in possession was comfortable taking a pass in the middle of the park with two opponents in close proximity.
Reo Hatate and Callum McGregor were the beating heart of the Celtic team, though. Hatate, not content with two opponents, on one occasion held the ball in his own half with three Real players nipping away at him.
Yesterday we asked, How far can this Celtic team go? We are not the finished article but there is not a team in Europe who will look forward to coming to Celtic Park.