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Champions League paradise regained for Celtic

New boss Rodgers brings the Bhoys back to European prominence

Image Credit: REUTERS
Celtic's fans react during the Hapoel Be'er Sheva v Celtic match.
Gulf News

Dubai: The Bhoys are back in town. Absent from the Champions League since 2013/14, high-profile new manager Brendan Rodgers has succeeded where his rookie predecessor Ronny Deila failed and returned Scottish champions Celtic to the promised land of the group stages of the competition. Where the big boys play.

The club’s fans earned plaudits for their widely-publicised support of Palestine during the first leg of the Champions League play-off round qualifier against Israeli side Hapoel Beer-Sheva in Glasgow.

In Israel on Tuesday night in the return leg, the Celtic players did just enough — just — to knock their opponents out.

But boy, they put those supporters through it for their success.

Up 5-2 from the first leg at Celtic Park, Celtic proceeded to throw away two goals of that advantage just minutes into the second-half.

A first-half header from former Chelsea wonderkid Ben Sahar once again exposed Celtic’s long-held weakness for defending corner kicks, then right-back Saidy Janko crashed into Hoops goalkeeper Craig Gordon as he gathered the ball, allowing Ovidiu Hoban to gratefully tap into an empty net.

And both goals came after Gordon had blocked Maharan Radi’s penalty — astonishingly the first penalty save of his more-than 15-year career, excluding shootouts — following a trip by Janko.

They don’t do it the easy way, Celtic.

For a club steeped in European history, Celtic’s return to the Champions League is one greeted with immense relief by their supporters.

Modern-day Celtic may be a club that flirts with the group stages of the Champions League — sometimes, as in recent years, falling short in the qualifiers, sometimes producing exceptional results such as the 2-1 group win over Barcelona in November, 2012, occassionally progressing to the last 16, like in 2007, 2008 and 2013.

The Celtic of the 1960s and 70s, however, were a European powerhouse.

Not only the first British side to win the European Cup, as they did in 1967 with a 2-1 win over Inter Milan, but also the first from northern Europe.

Their record in that period is akin to say a modern-day Bayern Munich. Finalists in 1970, semi-finalists in 1972 and 1974.

Like another great side from that era, Ajax, those days are in the past. And in the past they must — or will — remain.

Nowadays the club are delighted to just be in the competition and benefit from the significant cash sums that come with it. Scottish football is a very poor neighbour compared to the money-bags big brother of the Premier League south of the border.

Likely a pot four side in the Champions League, it is likely that clubs in the other groups will be delighted to be pulled out alongside them. Celtic Park — or Paradise as it is commonly referred to — may be a fortress with an atmosphere that a plethora of top European footballers, from Andres Iniesta, to Andrea Pirlo, to Paolo Maldini to Xavi have praised, but the club’s away form in the competition has been historically very poor. In 2012, they had won only two out of their previous 34 away matches in Europe.

Rodgers, however, offers something different. He may have exited Liverpool under a cloud in 2015 but he came within a whisker of winning the club its first ever Premier League title.

The highest-paid manager in Scotland ever, he has added Premier League — and Champions League — experience to the squad in Scott Sinclair and Kolo Toure.

Unlike his predecessor Deila, who rigidly stuck to a 4-2-3-1 formation, Rodgers continues his philosophy from Swansea and Liverpool of adapting styles, often within matches themselves. In Israel, Celtic went from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 diamond then to a back five.

Having won none of their qualifiers away from Celtic Park however, including an embarrassing 1-0 reverse to Gibraltan part-timers Lincoln Red Imps, getting out of the group may be highly hindered by their inabilities to travel well.

You suspect though that Celtic are just thrilled to be back home where they feel they belong. In the Champions League,

 

Results from the second-leg matches of the European Champions League play-off round on Tuesday:

 

Roma (ITA) 0 Porto (POR) 3 (Felipe 8, Layun 73, Corona 75)

Porto win 4-1 on aggregate

 

Hapoel Beer-Sheva (ISR) 2 (Sahar 21, Hoban 48) Celtic (SCO) 0

Celtic win 5-4 on aggregate

 

Legia Warsaw (POL) 1 (Kucharczyk 90+2) Dundalk (IRL) 1 (Benson 19)

Legia Warsaw win 3-1 on aggregate

 

Monaco (FRA) 1 (Fabinho 90+1-pen) Villarreal (ESP) 0

Monaco win 3-1 on aggregate

 

Viktoria Plzen (CZE) 2 (Duris 7, Mateju 64) Ludogorets Razgrad (BUL) 2 (Misidjan 17, Keseru 90+5)

Ludogorets Razgrad win 4-2 on aggregate

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