Celtic’s goalless draw against FC Qarabag was one of the finest displays of resiliency the club has put on in a long time. Their 1-0 aggregate victory was not the prettiest but it was pragmatic by approach. Quite simply it was a masterclass in getting the job done.
Their win over the champions of Azerbaijan is probably the most difficult challenge that the Glaswegian club will have to face in order for them to advance in to the Champions League group stages – even harder than Malmo, who we play next. They faced a team that is not only hard to break down but they did it in sweltering conditions amongst a passionate support.
Needless to say, Ronny Deila’s Bhoys have evolved over the past 12 months into a team that is more mature in mindset and vastly greater in talent.
However, (and apologies for the typical sporting cliché here) Celtic must build on this latest success and improve if they are to be competitive in the latter stages of European competition.
For example, that same level of resilience was achieved back in the 2012-13 season against far superior teams such as Barcelona and Spartak Moscow. While Qarabag are a good team, taking slender leads into games where results should be better is quite frankly not good enough.
One could argue that Celtic had superior talent three seasons ago. They would be right. Fraser Forster is England’s most underrated goalkeeper, Victor Wanyama is Southampton’s most underrated player and Gary Hooper could have accomplished more if he was not in such an unproductive Norwich side. These three men were vital to their Champions League campaign when they made the last-16 in the tournament.
But the likes of Stefan Johansen, Dedryck Boyata, Nadir Citfci and Gary Mackay-Steven have all got the potential to replicate the clinical nature of that campaign.
The problem for Celtic at the moment is their inability to pick key passes in the final third and their powerlessness against defences which aim to sit back. This is what Qarabag did and this is why Celtic only won by the slimmest of margins.
Ciftci always dropped back looking like more of a midfielder; a lone striker has to do more than just hold up play well, which, incidentally, he did a very good job in that specific task. Celtic were slow on the counter, unable to run behind defenders and squandered any shots on goal they may have had rather easily (everybody is looking at you James Forrest). This is unacceptable at this level.
If Celtic progress to the group stages of the they need to show the clinical nature that they had up front three seasons ago. They took their chances when opportunities were scarce and they ended up with a famous victory over Barcelona and also ran them close away from home too.
It is all very well have a strong back four and an excellent goalkeeper to protect Celtic. Craig Gordon, Mikael Lustig, Virgil Van Dijk, Dedryck Boyata and Emilio Izaguirre are all part of a steel wall that Celtic fans can be proud of, but in football, clean sheets are only half of the game.
As good as their defence is against inferior opposition, they have tended to show great signs of weakness against strong opposition— see their first-leg against Inter Milan in last season’s Europa League. To counter this, they must take their chances. This has not be seen in these last two matches against Qarabag.
Celtic have built their fortress, but now they must use their cannons in order to protect their status as one of Europe’s better teams.