WELL that’s Europe over for another season but, strangely enough, I’m not overly disappointed; in fact, I’m quite upbeat about how we have progressed and in particular, pleased with a more than decent performance last night!

Moving on from the first game where we were battered by a vastly superior team to last night where we competed pretty effectively against Barcelona (and the 5 officials) shows a remarkable progression.

Overall Barcelona deserved the victory but we had opportunities early in the second half at 1-0 to get back into the game and didn’t take them.

The refereeing didn’t help either. The tussle between Izzaguirre and Suarez isn’t a foul anywhere else on pitch so giving a penalty for that was very harsh. Watching the replay, Suarez initiated the contact with Izzaguirre, put his arm across and around him; Emilio is a bit naïve getting involved in the box, but in reality it’s a tussle, no more. Far more pulling and tugging is evident at every corner kick but goes unpunished in every game!

The difference from the first game was significant in terms of possession with Barcelona having 60% and Celtic 40% (the first leg was 69 – 31) and the chances created were far more even. Celtic had 7 shots with 3 on target; Barcelona had 9 with 4 on target; so quite close. Far better than the 15 Barcelona shots with 9 on target and 7 goals in the first game!

The pressing and passing game that Brendan Rodgers wants to play was pretty effective last night and showed that we can compete when we play that way. As ever, Barcelona made plenty of passes, completing 649 from 723 attempted (90%) while Celtic completed 357 of 413 attempted (86%). That’s more than decent against a team like Barcelona and they don’t often misplace over 70 passes in a game!

So how did the team actually perform?

Craig Gordon was very solid and made one fantastic point-blank save in the first half. I heard some people around me questioning if he should have been caught out at his near post, but the shot from Messi was quick and powerful, leaving him very little chance. Again, the penalty was very well taken, so no chance there. He played the ball out 21 times and found his target on 18 occasions; his distribution is far better than it was 3 months ago and allows us to keep possession more.

Sviatchenko and Simunovic are forming a great partnership and didn’t do much wrong last night. Possibly caught out once or twice with the running of Messi, Suarez and Neymar but overall they were solid. Simunovic is very accurate with his passing, completing 34 of 37 (92%); Sviatchenko not quite as good with 27 of 32 completed (84%) but his reading of the game and his interventions, cutting out the danger is excellent.

Both full-backs also performed well and coped effectively with Suarez and the cheat known as Neymar (a quite despicable individual who, despite being a fantastic player, I strongly dislike). They both see a lot of the ball and the way we were playing out from defence was evident in the fact that Izzaguirre completed 40 of 50 passes (80%) and Lustig 41 of 46 passes (89%). Both full backs got forward as much as they could and were always available for Gordon, Simunovic and Sviatchenko to play a pass to. Lustig deserves special mention for putting up with, and effectively marking the despicable Neymar – a player who niggles, dives, fouls and cheats his way through the game. A thoroughly unpleasant individual who, for me, has no redeeming qualities. Izzaguirre played Suarez well but was suckered in to conceding a dubious penalty.

Overall the defence were outstanding and not many teams will limit Barcelona to 9 shots at goal in a game.

The midfield 3 of Brown, Armstrong and McGregor put in a solid shift with Scott Brown yet again playing exceptionally well. His running, tackling, positional sense and passing were outstanding and worthy of a Man of the Match performance. In completing 58 of 61 passes for a 95% accuracy rate he was matched by Pique (95%) and only bettered by Mascherano (98%). He was outstanding as a midfield lynchpin and captain and his performances in Europe this season have underlined just how good a player he is.

Stuart Armstrong has come on in leaps and bounds under Brendan Rodgers but his great work is often let down by some slack passing.  He completed  27 of 34 passes (79%) but critically, misplacing 7 passes in a busy midfield against top quality opposition can really hurt the team; fortunately his ability to recover and win the ball back sometimes makes up for this.  His decision making and passing accuracy needs to improve and he will become an exceptional player.

Callum McGregor was effective enough when he was in the game but it seems to pass him by too often at this level. Although his passing rate was more accurate than Armstrong (83%) he attempted 10 less passes (24) and completed 20. His decision making lets him down as well; early in the second half he did well to create space on the edge of the box and had Dembele in clear space to his right. However, he elected to shoot from 20 yards instead of playing Dembele in and the keeper saved fairly comfortably. He needs to get himself more involved at the game to be a top class player and has to see the game better when he has the opportunity to place a decisive, killer pass. He has taken the wrong option on a couple of occasions in the European games this season and those margins are the difference between taking a point or 3 or coming away with nothing!

The attacking 3 players, Rogic, Sinclair and Dembele had a tough night and just didn’t quite reach the heights required to make the difference. Tom Rogic had (by his standards) a fairly quiet night and didn’t see too much of the ball in a fairly crowded midfield, completing 15 of 17 passes (89%) but only 5 of these were to the players in front of him; 3 to Sinclair and 2 to Dembele. He just didn’t get the time or space needed to weave his magic and was replaced by Bitton on 65 minutes.

Sinclair lasted only 45 minutes and although he started brightly he found space hard to find and was unable to make a major impact on the game. As ever, he was accurate with the ball completing 11 of 13 passes (85%) but never created any clear cut chances. He took a sore one just before half-time and was replaced by James Forrest.

Moussa Dembele was his usual rambunctious self and Pique and Mascherano knew they were in a physical contest. He completed 19 of 25 passes (76%) and had 2 shots on target, 1 wide and 1 shot blocked; only Messi had more shots on goal. His header on 52 minutes from James Forrest’s cross should have been put away, but he couldn’t get enough pace or direction on the ball and the keeper saved comfortably. He is a definite talent and will continue to improve under Brendan Rodgers. Next year I reckon he will be a real ECL star!

The 3 subs had mixed fortunes. James Forrest had 45 minutes and was accurate with the ball when he got it – 11 completed passes from 14 attempts (79%) and pretty much put it on a plate for Moussa Dembele; he is always a good out-ball but the main difference this year is that he tracks back and tackles when required. This is a significant change in his game and he was a wee bit unfortunate not to start last night.

Patrick Roberts only got 20 minutes and got a fair bit of the ball in that time. He completed 7 of 8 passes (88%) but didn’t manage to get any telling balls into the box. He is a great talent but seems to be suffering from the fact that he’s not our player and Brendan Rodgers seems prefer our own players to a loanee.

Nir Bitton was given just over 25 minutes and made a positive impact when he came on; he linked play well completing 27 of 29 passes (93%) and tried to push the game forward. There is a very good player in Nir Bitton (we saw that in his first season) and if Rodgers can coach it out of him again we could save a lot of money in the transfer market!

So overall, it was a very creditable performance against some the best players in the world and the difference from our European performance against Fenerbache last December is massive. We have competed well in the ECL this season and were not far away from possibly playing in the Europa League after Christmas.

Our poorest home performance was against Borrussia Monchengladbach where 2 crazy errors cost us the game, and ultimately the opportunity to snatch 3rd in the Group. We are not too far away from being more competitive in the ECL Group Stages and with a better seeding or one of the “easier” groups we could have gathered more points.  A couple of additions to the squad in January and more in the summer and we will be more than capable of putting up a good show in next seasons competition.

The game at the Etihad may be a “dead rubber” in terms of qualifying, but for our co-efficient and reputation getting something from the game would be massive.

We have come further than I thought we would this season and I think that with (literally) the luck of the draw we could be looking forward to European football after Christmas.  Many people thought we would come through this group with 0 points; we have 2 and can add to them in Manchester so still something to play for!  However, it’s been a great learning experience for the players, manager and fans!

It sets us up nicely for the rest of the season and the £30M will come in handy for strengthening the team!

Roll on Sunday and the first trophy of the season!

Our only danger is below:

Written by VFR800


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