While every other team in Scotland gets away with failing to make any progress in the qualification rounds in Europe, if we don’t make the Champions League group stages our season is seen as something of a disaster.
To be fair though, that’s more to do with the rest of Scotland getting off lightly. We all want Celtic in those Champions League group stages, and while last season was pretty much an unexpected bonus to get there, if we don’t manage it again this year we’re going to be very disappointed indeed.
So at the midpoint in our third qualifying round, you can understand why we might all be getting slightly worried that Celtic have screwed this up.
We’re not in a bad position, but we’re hardly in the position of strength that we would have hoped for either. With a goalless home leg there’s mixed feelings at this point. On the one hand, we won’t be going out on away goals. In part that’s down to an assured performance from Kristoffer Ajer who stepped in to claim a man of the match performance in the first leg when Erik Sviatchenko didn’t win his fitness battle. Jozo Simunovic helped him through the match, and that partnership was probably the best aspect of the night.
But then again, Rosenborg did manage to miss some terrific chances. Yann-Erik De Lanlay managed to scoop one over the bar from close range, while Matthias Vilhjalmsson had a chance saved by Craig Gordon late on. And then there was Nicklas Bendtner, who continued to show the kind of form that had many scratching their heads at Arsenal including completely sclafing a chance to shoot in the second half. Last week I compared him to Harald Brattbakk and his hapless time, I only hope that comparison doesn’t continue into our trip to Trondheim given Harald’s two goals against us in 2001.
But if Rosenborg missed some great chances in the first leg, that’s more than we ever managed. It took us until the last fifteen minutes of the game to get a shot on target, as we really suffered from not having a recognised striker available. In the run up to kick off it was revealed that Moussa Dembele wasn’t just out of the game but would be out until September, and with Leigh Griffiths suspended we were left with no options.
I understand when Brendan Rodgers says we don’t have room for three top quality strikers in the squad. This isn’t the Martin O’Neill era when we played two up front and had to constantly juggle Henrik Larsson, Chris Sutton and John Hartson. These days we only tend to play one striker, so it’s one from two not two from three. The problem is, this isn’t even the first time this calendar year that we’ve been left with no options, so I’d suggest we need to rethink what we do there.
To complete the comparison, when neither Hartson nor Sutton were fit, Martin O’Neill still had an option to play with Larsson. What Brendan Rodgers could do with is an equivalent of Tommy Johnson.
That option doesn’t appear to be Nadir Ciftci, who isn’t even in the UEFA squad and so isn’t an option this week. I’m not sure we’d want him there anyway, he’s shown nothing when given a run out. Regardless, we can’t add anyone to that squad so we now need to hope that Leigh Griffiths wins his fitness battle because it was pretty evident the “false nine” option didn’t work.
Although maybe it was more a case of it didn’t work with Tom Rogic playing that role. On Saturday in Sunderland, James Forrest seemed to do a better job of it, although there’s a few caveats to that. One, it was only Sunderland, a team all those nans who could score in Scotland could probably get a hat trick against. Two, Callum McGregor was the man who got our hat trick against them, not Forrest. And three, Forrest had three decent chances against Rosenborg and took too many touches for two of them while he tried to generate power for a header for the third – something that very few footballers can manage.
When it comes to scoring away from home in Europe, Callum McGregor is quite possibly Celtic’s best option. In 2014/15, he scored in each of our three away legs in Champions League qualifying. Indeed, it was his goal in Warsaw in the 4-1 defeat to Legia that ultimately won the tie after the home leg became a 3-0 Celtic win!
The away goals that have come since those qualifiers have come from the likes of Stefan Scepovic, Kris Commons, Mubarak Wakaso, Stefan Johansen, Charlie Mulgrew and Patrick Roberts – none of which are at the club now.
Although it should be noted that Nir Bitton, Scott Brown, Mikael Lustig and of course Leigh Griffiths and Moussa Dembele have all been on the scoresheet away in Europe in that time as well. So it’s not like McGregor is our only option for goals. Both Sinclair and Rogic got goals against Linfield after all.
What Celtic need in this second leg is the ability to break down the Rosenborg defence. Last week we seemed to get down the wings well enough, but there was nothing inside once we got there. The midfield couldn’t find the space to get shots away, and so nothing seemed to work. If we don’t have Griffiths in there as a target, then we at least need someone who can pull the defence around enough to create the space for the midfield. Maybe that is where Forrest helped McGregor to his hat trick against Sunderland.
Relying on Rosenborg coming out and being more attacking in the second leg won’t work though. As far as they’re concerned they should be leading this tie already and, as a team who apparently like to counter attack, the game plan from the first leg will very likely be used again in the second leg. It suits them, it’s what they know best, and as long as Celtic don’t score they don’t have any urgency to force them out.
If we score though, everything changes.
One Celtic goal over there means Rosenborg need two and they’ll have to come out. That will leave them more exposed and maybe we can pick them off on the counter attack to put the tie beyond doubt.
But even if Rosenborg do score first, it won’t be a panic. Celtic have to score once whether they do that or not.
It’s been a good while since we had a goalless draw at Celtic Park in the first leg of a European tie. The last 0-0 at Celtic Park was in the group stages against Benfica in 2012/13, while Aalborg also managed that same feat in 2008/09. Both teams won their home games in those groups, while Bayern Munich also managed a goalless draw at Celtic Park after a 2-1 win at the Olympicstadion, but there’s a whole different mentality in group stage games compared with two legged ties.
AC Milan in the last sixteen of the Champions League in 2006/07 was our last first leg goalless draw, and although we eventually lost to them in extra time we were denied a stonewall penalty for handball. That and the fact we went out to the eventual European champions that season says that wasn’t all that bad.
The last time we won a tie after drawing the home leg 0-0 was back in 1998/99, when Irish champions St Patrick’s Athletic were eventually knocked out at Tolka Park thanks to the two men that had sent us into that Champions League qualifier in the first place – Brattbakk and Larsson.
As well as AC Milan, there’s the infamous Atletico Madrid tie from 1973/74 where a bruised and battered Celtic drew 0-0 at home only to lose the away leg of the European Cup semi final 2-0. Thankfully those animals lost to Bayern Munich in the final. That was our second 0-0 draw in a home first leg that season, as we’d earlier knocked Danish champions Vejle out in the second round by winning the second leg in Denmark 1-0.
Four ties, each with a 0-0 home first leg result, and the tie results in chronological order are win, lose, win, lose. I like the look of that pattern for the fifth tie! Hopefully it’s one we continue – at least this time.
Win this tie tonight, and we’re guaranteed European football until Christmas. Lose it, and we’re probably selling someone to make up for the shortfall of income. No pressure then!
Krys (Twitter @krys1888)