Tomorrow Celtic will take on Rosenborg in what feels like the fifth or sixth time…
Celtic hosted Rosenborg last night in the Champions League qualifiers in what at this point almost feels like an annual tradition. Brendan Rodgers’ side were the favourites going into the game but fell behind after 15 minutes, courtesy of Birger Meling’s opportunistic run forward. Odsonne Edouard levelled shortly before the break before Olivier Ntcham curled an effort from the edge of the box into the far corner to give Celtic the lead. Edouard then gently chipped the ball over Andre Hansen to seal the win with 15 minutes left to play, with Rodgers blowing a sigh of relief after a tepid start to the game.
It was a strange match for Celtic. The home side started well enough but when Rosenborg applied some early pressure, the Hoops defence looked shaky and they soon found themselves a goal behind. Jack Hendry was the chief culprit, initially giving away the ball that began the Rosenborg attack and then for subsequently failing to block Meling’s shot. Going forward, Rodgers curiously decided to swap James Forrest and Callum McGregor around in midfield, to the detriment of both players and the overall team. First disappointment, then a palpable sense of unease crept into the home support before Edouard’s equaliser.
Celtic’s second-half performance was much more like the side we are accustomed to seeing on a regular basis domestically. Forrest was moved back out wide and Celtic surged forward with a newfound belief and confidence. The champions scored twice in the second period but also hit the bar on no fewer than three occasions. The match finished 3-1, but in truth, it could easily have been four or five.
There are a few interesting points we can draw from the game. Christian Gamboa, for instance, put in a good performance at right-back, suggesting there could yet be future for the Costa Rican at Celtic Park. We learned that Forrest, for all his qualities as a wide player, can’t really cut the mustard centrally. And Edouard proved that he can be a decisive player at this level, with his second goal, in particular, demonstrating an encouraging level of composure from the young Frenchman.
Perhaps most importantly, however, Celtic as a team showed that they can recover after a poor start to the game and displayed a newfound sense of resilience which isn’t often seen in their European performances. Since a 3-2 away win over Spartak in 2012, this was only the second time that Celtic have come from behind to win a European fixture – the other occasion was a 2-1 win over Stjarnan in 2015 – and, as the table above demonstrates, Celtic have repeatedly struggled to turn games around in Europe.
Since 2010, Celtic have been losing a match on 43 occasions. Of those 43, Celtic have gone on to lose 32 times. Under Neil Lennon, Celtic occasionally managed to turn things around and won four matches from losing positions, drawing one. But since 2012, generally speaking, if Celtic fell behind in a European game, they lost. Wednesday night’s win has helped to put an end to this poor record and Celtic fans will surely be relieved that history hasn’t repeated itself. Performances from losing positions slipped under Lennon and got worse under Deila. But now, things are looking a lot more positive.
Rodgers deserves some credit here – after all, he had the sense to see that his gameplan wasn’t working and changed things around to great effect. In the first half, Celtic were on the ropes. After Rodgers re-jigged his side, they were in the ascendancy and there was only going to be one winner. This reactive style of management is one of the biggest differences between Celtic’s performances now and their efforts under Rodgers’ predecessor Ronny Deila.
Under Deila, the Hoops had the unfortunate and unwanted habit of starting games well but throwing away cheap – and often crucial – goals late on in the game. In the Norwegian’s 26 games in charge of Celtic in Europe, they conceded 10 times in the last 15 minutes in games: around a quarter of their total goals conceded. Many of these goals proved costly, too – Jo Inge Berget’s 95th-minute goal for Malmo in 2015 changed the complexion of the Glasgow club’s Champions League qualifier and ultimately saw them knocked out. At home to Maribor in the same competition the year before, Marcos Tavares’ late goal consigned Celtic to defeat. Similarly, Vaclav Cerny scored an 87th-minute winner for Ajax when the Dutch team visited Celtic Park in 2015 in the Europa League.
Time and time again, Celtic had a nasty habit of throwing away matches as they neared their conclusion. Celtic’s below-par performances in Europe eventually ended up costing Deila his job and the board chose Rodgers as his replacement – someone who they believed could successfully negotiate the early qualifying rounds of the Champions League. So far, the Celtic board have been proved right with the Hoops qualifying for the last two Champions League group stages. The half-hour or so that Rosenborg led last night was only the second time that Celtic have been behind in a European qualifier under Rodgers; the first being the Northern Irishman’s first match in charge when Celtic were humbled by Gibraltarian side Lincoln Red Imps and trailed 1-0 going into the second leg.
Critics might argue that Rosenborg offered limited opposition and that Celtic should be expected to win anyway, regardless of whether or not they scored first. This was a team that sacked their manager the previous week and scraped through the previous round against Icelandic opposition, the thinking goes. But this completely misses the point. Scandinavian teams, halfway through their domestic seasons, have repeatedly proven to be troublesome opposition for Celtic. To win convincingly and come from behind demonstrates a sense of resilience and determination that has been lacking in Glasgow’s East End for quite some time in similar encounters.
Celtic fans will be hoping that Wednesday night’s win reflects a change in fortunes for the team’s performances in Europe. Rodgers has guided the club to successive Champions League group stages but has yet to make an impression once Celtic have got there. Celtic have had unfortunate draws but with a low European coefficient, this will always be the case until Scottish football as a whole performs better in Europe. In the match against Rosenborg, Celtic look to have turned a corner. It’s now up to Rodgers to maintain this newfound resilience going forward.