For the first 20 minutes of the second half, AZ Alkmaar lay siege to the Celtic defence, which stood firm. They only looked vulnerable when; in a carbon copy of the move Celtic scored with, Poku stretched but was unable to make a good enough contact to put the ball on target.
Free kicks and corners came and went without fuss, the defensive line was straight and each player in at the back controlled and distributed the ball safely. Considering most of us believe the defence is the area of the team most in need of supplements, we are already in an elevated position compared to last season.
Yet again Anthony Ralston made a significant contribution, this time, sending Liel Abada clear to cross for our Irrepressible Icon, Kyogo Furuhashi, to do his thing. Greg Taylor was injured but struggled-on until 24 minutes when he was replaced by Adam Montgomery. This felt ominous as until then, AZ were most dangerous through their right back, Sugawara, who flooded forward effectively. Adam more than took care of the Japanese full back in what was one of the most crucial personal encounters of the game. He is a player.
Both central defenders almost had a flawless game. Almost. Stephen Welsh was caught in two minds; he did not head a long ball and he did not let it run through, as a consequence, it skimmed his chest to spark a night of anxiety.
Carl Starfelt’s own goal was a classic of the genre. The Swede started the season on the left side but after clearly struggling there, Ange Postecoglou switched him to the right. Evidence mounts that his left peg is largely for standing on. Carl swung at a cross that was going nowhere with his ‘standing foot’. He missed, the ball struck his right heel and squirmed into the net. The early weeks of his Celtic career, featuring so much good play, has been peppered by errors.
I am delighted Joe Hart is at Celtic and remain surprised at the improvement in our form he has provided. Still in the peak years for a keeper, there is a reason he’s no longer in the Lucre League (I believe they prefer “EPL”). At the point Stephen Welsh was caught in two minds, Joe’s decision-making capacity deserted him. This was not a footwork error, he just did not correctly judge the pace of the ball in relation to the man who was about to drift past him and score. The Joe Hart Anthology has another entry. Our memories should also record that he made two crucial saves during the game.
Yesterday’s blog was entitled “Game management when the roof falls in”. It is as though we have seen Celtic in Europe before; against the best team we have faced since 2019, there was always the potential for things to drift south rapidly. Recent Celtic teams crashed and burned after being pushed to the precipice in European qualification.
To the home fans, this must have thought this looked on the cards during the opening period of the second half, when Celtic could not get out of their defensive third. Possession was repeatedly surrendered while passing out from the back. AZ were permitted to mount relentless surges forward, we needed to change the game plan.
Odsonne Edouard arrived on the hour for the majestic but seldom mobile Tom Rogic. From that moment, Celtic had the engine to cover the pitch and could retain possession. For all of the criticisms that go his way, if we lose Odsonne next week*, we will have one less game-changing option.
If you are second seed in a European group, as Celtic are, the most important opponent is who you face from the third pot, given the assumption that the top seed is unlikely to drop two places below their expected finish. In this respect, we got a very difficult draw.
Bayer Leverkusen, sixth last season in Bundesliga, 8 points behind fifth place Eintracht. Difficult, of course, but a team we should compete against.
Real Betis also finished sixth last season, one place in La Liga above last season’s Europa League winner, Villarreal. They will be favourites to win the group and are everything we did not want. We have a bit of history here, of course, they got their first strips from us and we will both always have Seville.
Delighted to get Ferencvaros, they are a decent side but we owe them one. Bring it on.
*We’ll pick this up at the time, but I’ve been preaching asset management here for 17 years, so you know where I’m going on this subject.