Scouts who watch Celtic will know they can go months without facing a high press. As a consequence, when we are forced to hold the ball in our final third without a safe option, you, me, and 11 Celtic players get a bit anxious.
Greg Taylor was the most senior Celtic defender and took on the role comfortably. His early authoritative touches set the tone for those around him. There was no panic (not on the field, anyway), the players trusted themselves and each other while they moved the ball across the face of goal looking for a way forward.
Feyenoord play in a different league than us and are more accustomed to this type of challenge, but the teams were evenly matched. As a result, we got to see both sides play the ball rapidly across the turf, creating chances with clever movement and thinking.
Stephen Welsh’s only appearance this season came as a substitute in August. He has not started a game in any competition in 14 months, but he came in from the cold to partner Liam Scales in central defence. His legs lasted 75 mins of relentless but denied pressure. The sense of achievement the player had when he turned to applaud crowd on leaving the field was clear.
Yesterday, I hoped Mikey Johnston would enjoy what is likely to be his last game at this level. Like Welsh, he left the field proud of his night’s work.
In an evenly matched game, it can often be the little things which determine the outcome. When the referee suggests you should not to pull an opponent at a corner kick, it’s usually a good idea to do what you’re told. Feyenoord’s Zerrouki was the idiot who could not contain his wish to hug Liam Scales at a corner kick, resulting a penalty, converted by Luis Palma, just after the half hour mark.
Thoughts that this game would be less competitive were dispelled as the Feyenoord players tried every trick in the book to intimidated Luis and mess with the lie of the penalty mark. There was nothing gracious about the visitors.
For the second time in three Champions League home games, Paulo Bernardo made an early substitute appearance, on this occasion replacing injured Tomoki Iwata. Just as against Atletico Madrid, he played well throughout. These are big tests for a 21-year-old who had made 19 career starts before arriving in Scotland in the summer. What is his ceiling and how do we get him there?
Big games call for big players and in this Celtic squad none are bigger than Joe Hart. A different goalkeeper would have resulted in a different outcome. None of his six saves were worldclass, but at four of them, his opponent would have hoped to see the net bulge.
Each side hit the woodwork, Feyenoord when chasing an equaliser, Callum McGregor with a thunderous 25 yard shot that skimmed the crossbar moments after the equaliser arrived. That chance was enough to stop a tidal wave of Feyenoord attempts, three in three minutes, as the Dutch champions looked for the winner; Celtic were permitted some breathing space.
When Luis Palma was forced off through injury in the 75th minute, Brendan Rodgers had few options to choose from, and turned to Mitchel Frame (17, less than half Joe Hart’s age), who had yet to make his senior football debut. The lad was also asked to play out of position, on the left wing, not the left back role he played as a youth.
Unperturbed, Frame got on with the business and won a corner kick as the clock hit 90 minutes. Taken short, the ball was switched out right to Alistair Johnston, who pinged one to the back post. Mat O’Riley’s marker could not get there, allowing the Celtic midfielder time to take the ball down, look up and measure a cross in front of goal for Gustaf Lagerbielke to attack.
Was I the only one taken back to 2008: Johston in the Gary Caldwell role, O’Riley as Scott McDonald, with Lagerbielke waiting on the cross, just as Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink did so deliciously 15 years ago?
Gustaf, without a minute’s play since September before his late cameo to replace Stephen Welsh, made no mistake with the header. Players need a break at the right time in their careers, just look at Liam Scales, who would be playing Europa League football tonight, were it not for a series of early-season injuries at Celtic. Instead, he was Man of the Match in a Champions League win.
Gus got his break, he and the manager need to build on that platform. The player is a full Sweden international, and as we continually say, our job at Celtic is to make players better, not waste their potential.
Although Feyenoord pressed for a second equaliser and the Celtic players were looking tired, the final minutes were comfortable enough, even when the visiting keeper came up for a corner kick (their deliveries were poor all night).
Not every pass out of defence worked, players were caught in possession on a few occasions, but so much was achieved. Post-match, Brendan Rodgers revealed that in the dressing room before the game, he told the squad that win, lose or draw, they would be better players afterwards for the experience. How true.
Brendan could have fielded Nat Phillips, who already has Champions League experience at Liverpool and Celtic, but Nat’s horizon here is closer than that of Stephen Welsh or Gustaf. This was a 90-minute investment in squad development that worked like a dream.