ANGE POSTECOGLOU kicked off November in despair and concluded a topsy-turvy, turbulent spell in delight with Celtic moving nine points ahead at the Premiership pinnacle.
However, there was pain in Spain on the second day of the month as the Hoops brought down the curtain of their ill-fated Champions League Group F odyssey with a 5-1 loss to reigning kings Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
In truth, it was another flawed performance as the Hoops suffered a fourth defeat while conceding a disastrous THIRTEEN goals in that quartet of agony.
The Spanish masters hoisted their tally to eight following their 3-0 victory at Parkhead just under two months ago while RB Leipzig also enjoyed home and away successes, 3-1 in Germany and 2-0 in Glasgow.
MADRID MEETING OF MINDS…Ange Postecoglou and Real boss Carlo Ancelotti before the tie in Bernabeu.
Two stalemates – both 1-1 – against the Ukrainian champions of Shakhtar Donetsk interrupted the harrowing sequence that saw the team slump to their lowest-ever points total in Europe’s most prestigious competition.
The Hoops, minus captain Callum McGregor in midfield and rock-solid Cameron Carter-Vickers in central defence, blundered through the minefield in the Spanish capital, squandered a penalty-kick from Josip Juranovic and had one brief moment of consolation six minutes from time when Filipe Jota arced a free-kick high past Thibaut Courtois to give the 1,800 travelling fans something to cheer.
Ange Postecoglou’s quest for success on this occasion was not aided by some erratic refereeing from French official Stephanie Frappart who awarded a spot-kick in the fifth minute after Moritz Jenz had clearly accidentally handled the ball as he slipped.
Luka Modric did the expected and drilled the ball into one corner of the net as the unfortunate Joe Hart took off for the other.
Fourteen minutes later, VAR made its dreaded intervention to flag up another handball, this time by Matt O’Riley, and once again the whistler was pointing to the spot. Rodrygo took over the duties from his team-mate and fired home with the keeper again electing to go to the wrong corner. When your luck’s out…
Juranovic, who toiled all evening up against the wiles, trckery and pace of Vinicius Junior, passed up the opportunity to bring the visitors back into the contest in the the 33rd minute when his blasted penalty-kick was too close to beanpole keeper Courtois who dived right to push it away.
HEY, REF…Ange Posetcoglou’s plea from the Madrid sidelines falls on deaf ears.
Apart from Jota’s gem, the second-half is better forgtten with Marco Asensio, Vinicius Junior and Federico Valverde all sticking the ball behind Hart as the hosts controlled the game.
Postecoglou shouldered responsibility and said: “For us and the majority of our players, this is their first experience not just at Champions League level, but in European football.
“I understand the fine lines and how you get punished for mistakes and how you need to take opportunities and you can only develop that by being exposed to it and experiencing it.
“It’s the first time we’ve been in the Champions League for five years.
“The responsibility lies with me because I have taken a bold approach to try and make an impact.
“We have paid the price for not having the quality and clinical finishing at one end and the opposition taking advantage at the other.
“The key for us is if we continue to play like this and continue to improve and we continually get to Champions League level, then I have no doubt that we’ll make an impact.”
SPOT OFF…Josip Juranovic squanders a penalty-kick at the Bernabeu.
The defiant Hoops manager added: “I don’t fear for anything with this group of players. At the end of the day, we lost to a very good football team, but I’m still proud of their efforts.
“If you look at some of our players, Matt O’Riley and Reo Hatate, among others, they’re growing in every game. This is their sixth game of football at this level and I have no doubt they will be better footballers and we’ll learn from it.
“If we perform like we have been we’ll be hard to stop in the league. It took an enormous effort for our boys to try and match one of the best football teams in the world, but if we go in there with that intent every week we’ll be hard to stop.
“It’s just disappointment for the fans and players. I wanted to get more rewards for our efforts and our fans a bit more joy, but I’m certainly not disheartened and believe we’re on the right track.”
Experienced 75 times-capped Hart was beaten 15 times in the six outings at Europe’s elite level and Celtic’s captain-for-the-night reflected: “It is never nice to concede two such soft penalties early on. I thought the first-half was fairly even apart from that.
“We had some good chances. Courtois has had a good game. It is an uphill struggle to compete against the champions of Europe, but we have come to represent and put our best foot forward.
“We have come here to attack, if you leave holes, Madrid are the sort of team that are ruthless. We had some good blocks and I did not have much to do except fish the ball out of the net five times, which is never nice.”
MAGIC IN MADRID…Filipe Jota celebrates his spectacular free-kick strike.
Postecoglou did not dwell on the failed European adventure and insisted: “I’m not disheartened by anything I’ve seen so far. I think we can do it this way and make up ground.
“I haven’t had any frustration or sense there wasn’t any alignment. I’ve had full support along the way. I’ll keep doing it until someone taps me on the shoulder and says: ‘That’s enough’.
“I’m obsessed by success. I’ve had success at every club I’ve been at because I haven’t limited what that looks like.
“I see no reason why this club can’t compete in the Champions League regularly. There’s obviously a massive gap to the big clubs, but there’s nothing to suggest we can’t be a strong club at that level.
“There’s nothing written anywhere that says: ‘This is your limit’.”
The focused boss is looking at acquisitions who could go in and be equipped to handle the rigours of the Champions League.
Postecoglou continued: “Potentially, if we get to those levels financially, why not?
“I think the core is that we will always look at a certain demographic and what I mean by that is that we will always go for the younger scale because that is part of the model that we need to create.
“But there are younger players who have had Champions League experience. You look at that Shakhtar team and the likes of Mykhailo Mudryk – they are young, but they have already had two or three years of Champions League experience.
“That is obviously beyond the financial levels we are at, but there could be clubs where we could look at younger players who have Champions League experience.”
FOUR JUST MEN…Ange Postecoglou celebrates along with John Kennedy, Gavin Strachan and Harry Kewell.
Asked if that meant rather than buying a £2million player and selling for £10million, he wants to buy for £5million and then £10million and sell for £20million, Postecoglou replied: “That is the way to go. I think that is how you get yourself up that ladder.
“That must still be underpinned with good decisions because whether you spend £1, £5million, £20million or £50million or £100million, if you are getting it wrong then you are getting it wrong. For me, that is the most important bit.
“What I hope I have proven over the last 12 to 18 months is that for the most part all the players we have brought in, irrespective of the levels, have made an impact.
“There is a trust from the club that whatever the spend is going to be, provided we go through a similar process, that if we get it right then we should be getting really good players.
“If that means players moving on, you are a more comfortable with it if you have the solution before it happens. It becomes part of the process of bridging the financial gap that exists with other clubs.
“It can be a little bit unsettling at times, especially for supporters if their favourite players don’t stay here for six, seven, eight, nine years.
“If we’re going to continue to improve, we need to be able to think that way and make sure we take up opportunities when they come along.”
THE THINKER…Ange Postecoglou looks down after another puzzling VAR decision.
Back on the domestic front, the Celtic manager was forced to stand in silence on the touchline as VAR urged referee David Dickinson to have a look at the touchline monitor to check a possible handball in Celtic’s dramatic 4-2 triumph over Dundee United at Parkhead on November 5.
Ludicrously, technical assistant Nick Walsh had instructed the match official to review an incident where a header from Steven Fletcher had hit the elbow of Alexandro Bernabei who was not even looking at the ball.
The Celtic left-back’s arm was in a perfectly natural position considering he had been involved in an aerial duel, but Postecoglou wore a wry smile as the whistler made his way to the touchline to view the screens.
We all knew what was coming next, a pattern had been set on day one when Walsh was the man in charge of the first weekend of new technology when he had Steven McLean as his colleague in the studio and between them they created chaos and confusion before the champions won a seven-goal encounter against Hearts at Tynecastle on October 22.
One of the many bloopers that hectic afternoon in the capital was to completely ignore a blatant handball from defender Michael Smith when he clearly motioned his left hand towards a cross from James Forrest. Walsh didn’t see it while McLean took all of 28 seconds to review it and decide there was no offence.
VAR-CICAL…Alexandro Bernabei is penalised by new technology against Dundee United.
The Hoops had opened the scoring against their Tayside visitors in the sixth minute when the lively Sead Haksabanovic had claimed his first goal for the club as he tucked the ball away at the far post after a sweeping cross from Filipe Jota on the left.
Three minutes later, the visitors were invited back into proceedings with the gift of a nonsensical spot-kick and Fletcher thrashed the award down the centre of the goal as Joe Hart took off for his left.
Haksabanovic netted a second before the interval and once again there was a VAR interruption. The manager was far from happy with the stop-start antics of Walsh as he pored over his screens in the anonymity of an office elsewhere in the city.
It looked as though Celtic had allowed two points to drift away when a left-wing cross from Dylan Levitt foxed Hart on its way into the net in the 90th minute of a match that should have been done and dusted in the first hour.
Justice was done when Kyogo Furuhashi neatly headed in the third and Liel Abada raced onto an excellent through ball from the superb Matt O’Riley to tuck the fourth past the keeper in the fading moments of stoppage time.
ALONE WITH HIS THOUGHTS…Ange Postecoglou following Ross County’s bizarre penalty-kick award.
After the champions’ twelfth win in 13 Premiership outings, Postecoglou observed: “Just to be clear here – I don’t have a problem with VAR, but I have a problem with how it is being used.
“There is no secret that we want to be a team who plays at a high tempo, especially at home because we think that is effective for us, but also it is entertaining for the fans.
“I don’t think people fell in love with football just to be sitting around waiting for someone in a building miles away to decide outcomes.
“They don’t need to take that long. Even our second goal. Our players are celebrating for about two minutes and we are still waiting all that time. To see what? What? I still don’t know what it was.
“If you can’t decide in two minutes, then it is probably not there.
“If they have seven camera angles it seems like they want to look at every one. I might be on my own on this one, but I will cop people making mistakes, but I just don’t feel comfortable. I know it is early doors and it is a new toy that everyone wants to use, but you can’t be disrupting games like this.
“I don’t think it is good for anyone.”
NO FOUL…Giorgos Giakoumakis gets up close and personal with the boot of Craig Sibbald.
Giorgos Giakoumakis was floored by a wayward high-boot, studs-up challenge from Craig Sibbald in the first-half. Astoundingly, referee Dickinson didn’t even see it as any sort of foul.
VAR checked it out as a possible red-card incident, but no-one of a Celtic persuasion held their breath on the merest possibility of the United culprit being banished. And so it proved with the Tannadice player the most relieved man in the east end of Glasgow.
Looking at the collision, most probably an instant dismissal anywhere else in world football, the Greek-Australian gaffer said: “He hasn’t even given a foul. I wasn’t blowing up that it was a red card. He is in a booth and he sees it, but really … we have to wait that long to come to a decision?
“To me the referee is close enough there. I’ll cop teething problems, but we have got to be learning along the way. I mean five minutes added onto the first-half of a game of football. It is crazy. For what?”
Three more points were added to the collection the following midweek with a 2-1 triumph over Motherwell at Fir Park and the Hoops chief accepted his players had not been at their scintillating best.
At that stage, the champions had a seven-point advantage over their Ibrox rivals and it was the Japanese double-act of Kyogo Furuhashi and Daizen Maeda who got the team over the line for their 13th league victory out of 14 – their only blip being the incomprensible 2-0 loss at St Mirren in September – as they remained on course to complete the first period of the crusade on a high.
NO GOAL…Filipe Jota lofts the ball over Motherwell keeper Liam Kelly for what looks like a good goal, but VAR had other ideas.
The win over Steve Hammell’s side was the eighth consecutive domestic success in the period since the loss in Paisley.
Postecoglou said: “We’ve had perfect league form in such a period of real fixture congestion, including Europe.
“There wouldn’t be many teams in Europe who have gone through that period and had the level of results we’ve had. It’s credit to the guys as it’s not easy.
“I’ve got no doubt that we can finish strong against Ross County on Saturday. All the boys who have come through this will feel better about themselves for the experience.
“Obviously, we’ve got a strong squad, but sometimes that makes it tough, too, because you bring players in and it changes things.
“It’s important for us that as we continue to build and become a better side. The more we’re resilient through difficult times because they will always come, it’s never all going to be easy. So, the fact it is there is good.”
REFFIN’ HELL…Cameron Carter-Vickers appeals against David Munro’s penalty-kick decision in favour of Ross County, but the referee is clearly not listening to the Celtic captain.
Postecoglou added: “It was a bit of a grind. We never really got into the rhythm we wanted.
“Credit to Motherwell. We didn’t start well and complicated things. We made the game difficult for ourselves. They worked hard and disrupted us. When we’re playing well we move the ball quickly and find simple solutions.
“I thought we just tried to be too cute, didn’t play the obvious pass. It didn’t allow us to control the game the way we wanted.
“My role is to assess performance and we could play better, but a big part of this team is their character when we’re not at our best.
“Winning away from home in the Premiership is never easy. That we found a way again is credit to the lads. We had good opportunities to take advantage of the space. It just happened too infrequently.
“I prefer to play well every game, but over the course of a season that’s impossible.
“That is not going to happen. They’re human beings.”
Postecoglou did not want to get involved in another bizarre VAR intevention when a Filipe Jota effort was ruled out and the manager once again remained silent when Ross County were gifted a penalty-kick in the next match at Parkhead.
The game was goalless when referee David Munro pointed to the spot after a so-called hand ball by Matt O’Riley.
It was a diabolical decision from a match official who had bewildered everyone in the stadium with a sequence of judgements from early in the encounter.
CROWD-PLEASER…Ange Postecoglou applauds the Celtic support.
O’Riley was penalised after an attempted clearance rebounded off County’s Callum Johnson and the whistler unhesitatingly awarded a penalty-kick.
Mystifyingly, VAR failed to overturn the call and the Highlanders’ David Cancola gleefully accepted the early Christmas present to tuck the ball behind Joe Hart who has now faced FOUR penalty-kicks in the past four games. Unfortunately, the experienced keeper has gone the wrong way for all four!
Postecoglou’s men responded in the manner of champions and David Turnbull claimed a classy equaliser while Sead Haksabanovic netted the winner with the sort of sublime finish of which his fellow-Swede Henrik Larsson would have been proud during his Hoops heyday.
O’Riley reflected: “We have had some strange decisions go against us at the moment, but they still can’t stop us, so that is alright.
“I do not know what I really could have done. My hands are by my side. I do not know if the ball hit my hip then my arm or my arm first, but I do NOT know where else I could have put my arm.”
OZ-SOME…Ange Postecoglou watches Celtic in action during the Sydney Super Cup in Australia.
The champions actually extended their lead to nine points over Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s Ibrox side who drew 1-1 at St Mirren with the aid of a VAR-assisted penalty-kick after Kevin Clancy had originally booked Ryan Kent for diving.
James Tavernier, something of a spot-kick expert, thumped in the leveller. The draw, though, was not enough to save the Dutch gaffer from losing his job and he was sacked just a year and four days after replacing Steven Gerrard.
On the lead-up to the World Cup Finals break, Postecoglou said: “The boys have been outstanding. It’s been a long stretch of games and for them to perform like that under not the easiest of circumstances, I couldn’t be prouder of them.
“It’s character, it’s quality, they’re good football players and strong characters and for any manager, it’s a pretty good combination.”
Celtic played two games in the inaugral Sydney Super Cup in the manager’s adopted country of Australia, losing 2-1 to the local side on the 17th and then 4-2 on penalty-kicks after a goalless draw with Everton three days later.
They then prepared for a breather before their next league match against Aberdeen at Pittodrie on Saturday December 17.
November 2: Real Madrid 5 CELTIC 1
November 5: CELTIC 4 Dundee United 2
Haksabanovic (2), Kyogo, Abada
November 9: Motherwell 1 CELTIC 2
November 12: CELTIC 2 Ross County 1
* TOMORROW: Don’t miss the nineteenth thrilling instalment of CQN’s EXCLUSIVE tribute to Ange Postecoglou.