IT wasn’t the best of starts to the European campaigns of Celtic and Rangers with defeats in their opening group stage matches. Neither were in great form at the time and both faced tough opposition. This week’s games were no easier but it was always going to be interesting to see how they would cope with the challenge.
Rangers obviously had the easier match of the two, taking on Sparta Prague, albeit away from home. Steven Gerrard made a few significant changes to the usual line-up.
Despite being without his two first-choice centre-backs, Connor Goldson and Filip Helander, through injury, I thought Gerrard set the team up well on the night and they played commendably in the first half, controlling possession and putting together some excellent attacking moves.
They also limited the threat of Sparta. Alan McGregor did pull off an extremely good save but a goal then would certainly have been against the run of play.
However, not long after that save, Sparta did get their noses in front from a corner. That should have settled the hosts but Rangers remained very much in the game and certainly weren’t being outplayed. Even late in the match, with ten men after Glen Kamara was unfairly ordered off, Rangers were still taking the game to Sparta.
There were though moments when the two centre-backs weren’t playing in conjunction with each other and their positioning gave the Czechs openings but that’s always going to be the case when two players are playing alongside each other for the first time at a high level.
In general, the whole team performed very efficiently and the only real weakness Rangers have currently is in the final third where they have lacked both creativity and finishing so far this season. This must still be a worry for Gerrard.
Celtic obviously had a more difficult opponent in Bayer Leverkusen. It turned out to be a bit of a hammering but, I have to say, the result doesn’t reflect how the match went.
I know people are being very critical just now of how Ange Postecoglou is managing the club, but there were many aspects on the night that should be seen as positive.
I felt Celtic played well and were very unlucky not to score a few goals with their excellent build-up play and efforts on goal. The Leverkusen keeper made some great saves and some easy chances were missed, too.
There’s no doubt that Postecoglou’s worry will be different from Gerrard’s in that Celtic’s weakness is most certainly in their defensive set up. There are so many new players in the squad and everyone who’s been picked has looked vulnerable in almost every match. Whoever he deems to be his main centre-backs need to be played regularly so they can establish a strong and dependable partnership.
I personally still think that young Stephen Welsh should be considered as one of the first-choice centre-backs but he seems to be discounted by the manager because of the signings.
Although Celtic didn’t score on the night, they did look like a really strong attacking unit. The current results are very poor with five defeats in their last eight games but the return of Kyogo Furuhashi and Callum McGregor from injury will significantly improve Celtic’s form. I also thought that Jota and Tom Rogic added greatly to Celtic’s positive style on the night. If these players can shine against a top German team then they really should be able to turn things around for Celtic on the domestic scene.
Obviously, it’s not just about how good you are going forward. The defence will certainly need to get their act together, and if this can be achieved, then Celtic could turn their season around. Tomorrow has emerged as a real test with the visit to Aberdeen.
Considering we’re now in October and Celtic haven’t won an away game since February 14, this really is a landmark match. If Celtic were to lose this game, then we’re going to be inundated with reports of a “crisis”. Celtic have the attacking flair available to deal with this matter, so tomorrow will be totally down to how well they defend.
AND ANOTHER THING
It’s a really unusual season in England at the highest level. I can never remember a time in any of the major leagues in Europe when we’re going into October with the top six clubs being separated by one point.
My old club Brighton were involved in a fascinating situation on Monday when a win over Crystal Palace would have put them top of the Premier League for the first time in their history. They didn’t make it following a 1-1 draw but I don’t think that a team sitting in sixth place in one of Europe’s major leagues would ever have achieved top spot by winning one game.
The point they got didn’t even move them up one place; going into their match with Arsenal today, they’re still sixth. I can imagine this scenario providing a good quiz question some day.