On The Road Challenge

I’ve had some strange times following Celtic, but Thursday night must be up there with one of the strangest of all.

It was a weird day for me where nothing was quite going according to plan. I hate days like that when I know the football is coming up, because it inevitably carries into that like some kind of bad omen.

And so it proved yet again. Timings didn’t feel right, whether it was singing songs or the players themselves. It quickly became clear that we were in trouble when our midfield couldn’t find each other with passes and things that we were trying were quickly seeing possession overturned. The defence seemed practically suicidal at times too.

We lost two players to injuries, which is never a good thing. Especially when the second one was our man of the moment, Ryan Christie. It’s worryingly quiet about his injury, which makes me think that although it’s not a break we won’t be seeing him for a good while now.

Then the goals came. Another disappointingly easy cross and header saw us fall behind, all too often that was how we would concede in Europe this season. But the second goal was just ridiculous. For all Craig Gordon had pulled off some outstanding saves to keep us in the game up to that point, throwing the ball against an opponent just reminds you of the kind of clanger you had seen him have against us in his Hearts days.

This was it, we were going out. People headed for the exits. I pulled out my phone and started checking messages, Twitter…

And while there I tweeted “come on Rosenborg”, knowing full well our only real hope of progress now was for the team with zero points from five games to somehow come from a goal down in Germany. It was a tweet more to illustrate that we were done for the night than in actual hope of it happening.

But soon I heard a roar come from behind me. Then my watch buzzed with the Sky Sports score update – Rosenborg has equalised.

Suddenly the doom and gloom lifted from the stadium. We were still losing, still didn’t look like we had any chance of changing that, especially not with Kristoffer Ajer missing a sitter that is arguably worse then the one I had in that same goal five years ago, but we were going through.

I’m not sure I was able to celebrate and sing like many others in the crowd, I was too busy wondering if Rosenborg could hold on, but it certainly seemed to lift the team. Salzburg may have been sitting back and defending their two goal lead, but suddenly we were creating. Olivier Ntcham finally tested their goalkeeper with a free kick. Filip Benkovic won us a penalty.

Of course, in keeping with the day even the penalty wasn’t quite right and Ntcham had to score the rebound.

But eventually the game ended in Germany. Our game was now meaningless, we were through to the last 32 and it didn’t matter we were about to lose. So when that full time whistle blew we all cheered a 2-1 home defeat.

Well actually, I didn’t. I was too busy laughing at just how surreal this whole thing was. Cheering your own team losing is too weird for me, even if I do understand that we were celebrating the efforts over six matches and not one.

When it comes right down to it, we took nine points from a group with two other champions – one of which made the Europa League semi final last season – and one of the best teams in Germany. It’s been said many times before, this was more of a “Champions” group stage than most Champions League groups.

We now await the draw on Monday to see who we will face after Christmas, the last Scottish team standing in Europe once more.

But there’s no time to reflect, because now we start a tough run of five league matches and the first of three away games at last season’s best of the rest.

With Pittodrie and Ibrox to come before the month ends, it’s funny to think that actually Easter Road might be the hardest of all. Hibernian may have finished fourth behind us and the other two teams, but we tend to win at Pittodrie and Ibrox in recent visits.

Not so Easter Road. We haven’t won there since January 2014! Yes, Hibernian spent a few seasons in the Championship after that, but when they returned to the top flight last season we only took a single point from our two trips there – and even that was mighty close!

We went from 2-0 up to 2-2 on our first visit last season, with Mikael Lustig clearing a potential late winner off the line after a mistake from Craig Gordon. Our other visit there last season was a title clincher is we had won, but instead we slumped to a 2-1 defeat.

When we played Hibernian earlier this season at Celtic Park, it took a terrific performance to beat them 4-2. Both teams had come off 6-0 wins the previous week and were bang in form and so didn’t disappoint.

It’s not quite the case now though. Since that game, Hibernian have slumped down the table and haven’t won at home since that 6-0 victory and that includes draw against the bottom two teams in the league. Meanwhile we’ve gone on to go top – albeit having lost that again yesterday thanks to Kilmarnock’s victory.

But even though we’ve done that, our away form hasn’t been great. It took a while to register an away win in the league this season, and of course our most recent away game was the 1-1 draw at Motherwell.

I have no doubt that Neil Lennon will have his team fired up for the game. They’ve won only once since they last played us and really need something to spark their season again. A good performance and a good result against the champions would do just that, and we’ve seen in pretty much every game against them that Hibernian are a very difficult prospect. Lennon knows how to play against us, and he’ll use every part of that to try and get what they need.

Meanwhile we need to bounce back after Thursday’s defeat with a much better performance and hopefully without missing Christie too much.

Krys (Twitter @krys1888)

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